Boating Accident Statistics in the U.S. (2022)

sinking boat

Thanks to worldwide lockdowns and social distancing, we are seeing an increase in recreational boating and related accidents.

Sadly, boating accident statistics show that the majority of accidents are related to operator negligence.

Here are some of the not-widely-known statistics about boating accidents.

Boating Accident Statistics

Highlights of accident statistics:

  • Boating fatalities surged 25.1% during the Covid pandemic.
  • Over 5,000 boating accidents occur yearly in the U.S., causing $62.5 million in damages.
  • Lack of boating safety education accounts for 77% of fatal accidents.
  • Alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.
  • 86% of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.
  • Only 11.6% of adults and 65.8% of kids wear a life jacket.
  • Collision with another vessel is the most common type of boating accident in the U.S.
  • The majority of boating accidents take place in calm waters.
  • Boat propeller accidents surged 44% during the Covid pandemic.

Boating fatalities surged 25.1% during the Covid pandemic.

The Covid pandemic has affected every person and industry worldwide. Most industries experienced a lack of demand and foot traffic. Surprisingly, the boating industry saw a surge in demand.

According to Info-Link Technologies, which tracks new and used boat registrations, first-time boat buyers accounted for a whopping 31% of all new boat sales and 37% of preowned boat sales. (1)

This makes an average increase in first-time boat owners by over 35%.

Interestingly enough, the new boat sales have been slowly declining for years until the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. There’s a high likelihood that the rise in boat traffic will only increase in the next years. (2)

Unfortunately, this increased boating activity by first-time boaters resulted in more accidents, injuries, and deaths.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard Report on boating accident statistics, there was a 25.1% increase in boating fatalities nationwide. (3)

In 2020, 767 deaths in the U.S. were caused by 5,265 boating accidents. Compared to 2019, the number of accidents increased 26.3%, and injuries increased 24.7%. (4)

This can be explained by the sudden surge in first-time inexperienced boat owners. 

All boating accidents contribute about 15% of total boating deaths per year during the last three years.

YearAccidentsDeathsFatality rate
20205,2657676.5 per 100,000 vessels
20194,1686135.2 per 100,000 vessels
20184,1456335.3 per 100,000 vessels

The fatality rate increased 25% from 5.2 deaths per 100,000 vessels in 2019 to 6.5 deaths per 100,000 vessels in 2020. 

The largest number of fatal accidents happened in January, March, April, and November.

Interestingly enough, most fatal boating accidents happened between 12:00 AM and 2:30 AM.

Over 5,000 boating accidents occur yearly in the U.S., causing $62.5 million in damages.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis statistics show that boating and fishing are the largest outdoor recreation activities in the U.S. at $23.6 billion in current-dollar value-added. (5)

With more new boaters hitting the water, rises the potential risk for accidents.

By National Marine Manufacturers Association 2020 statistics, there are 11,878,542 recreational vessels registered in the United States. (6) 

According to the USCG accident report (U.S. Coast Guard), boating accidents are in upwards trends with 26% more boating accidents than in the previous year. (3)

In 2020, there was 5,265 accidents (26% rise) that involved 3,191 injuries (20% rise) and 767 deaths (25% rise).

YearAccidentsInjuriesDeathsDamages
20205,2653,191767$62.5 million
20194,1682,559613$55 million
20184,1452,511633$46 million

Three main contributing factors for boating accidents were operator inattention, inexperience, and improper lookout.

All recreational boating accidents in 2020 caused $62.5 million dollars of damage to property, up 12% from 2019.

The most expensive damages associated with all accidents were:

  • Flooding/swamping – $24,329,920.03 (1,007 accidents)
  • Collision with recreational vessel – $14,437,120.93 (1,478 accidents)
  • Grounding – $12,528,222.55 (598 accidents)

Lack of boating safety education accounts for 77% of fatal accidents.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard boat safety statistics, inattention, inexperience, improper lookout, and excessive speed are the top contributing factors in boating accidents. (3)

All of these topics are covered in boating safety courses. Unfortunately, improper or lack of safety instruction can result in fatal accidents. 

Where the operator instruction-level was known, 77% of fatal boating accidents occurred on boats where the operator didn’t receive boating safety instruction.

As seen from the table below, every type of education is better than no safety education. 

Lack of boating safety education is the leading ​​cause of most fatal boating accidents and causes the most injuries.

Education typeAccidentsDeathsInjuries
American Red Cross202
Informal27115142
Online course25818148
State course1,10746561
U.S. Power Squadrons3709
U.S.C.G. Auxiliary121549
Other1611065
No Education 2,5673171,336

In contrast, only 12% of deaths occurred where the operator received a nationally approved boating safety education.

The boating fatality rate of 2020 was 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. Sadly, this is an increase of 25% from the previous year.

Alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.

The fact is that drinking and boating do not play well together. Just like with automobiles, there are legal limits for blood alcohol content (BAC) when operating a boat. 

Operating a boat while intoxicated is a federal offense and can result in a $1,000 fine and criminal penalties going as high as $5,000. (7) 

The current federal legal blood alcohol content limit in most U.S. states is .08%. (8)

According to the U.S. Coast Guard boating safety statistics, the primary contributing factor to boating deaths is alcohol. (3)

In accidents where the primary cause was known, alcohol was the leading factor in 18% of deaths in 2020. This number was 23% in 2019. 

Primary contributing factors of deaths and accidents in 2020:

Contributing factorDeathsAccidents
Alcohol use115664
Hazardous waters 62232
Operator inexperience56612
Operator inattention 55664
Weather42244
Excessive speed 32418
Improper lookout 28578
Navigation rules violation 26316
Machinery failure19373
Force of wave/wake 14215

The U.S. accident statistics also show that states with the highest number of alcohol-related fatal accidents were Florida, California, and North Carolina.

Interestingly enough, drug use caused 1% of all fatal boating accidents in 2020.

86% of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.

It’s a known fact that a life jacket is the most effective piece of boating safety equipment in minimizing marine casualties, but it only works if a person actually wears it. (9)

Marine accidents always happen at the most unexpected moments.

According to United States Power Squadrons, the greatest cause of boat deaths is drowning due to unexpected entry into the water. (10)

Most drowning victims could have been saved had they been wearing a life jacket before the accident. 

According to the U.S. Coast Guard research, 75% of fatal boating accident victims drowned in 2020. Of those victims, 86% were not wearing a life jacket. (3)

Sadly not wearing a life jacket has been slowly trending over the last years.

YearDrowning DeathsLife Jacket WornLife Jacket Not Worn
202075%14%86%
201979%14%86%
201877%16%84%

Only 11.6% of adults and 65.8% of kids wear a life jacket.

The harsh reality is that only a fraction of all adults wears a life jacket. Boat accidents are real, but one needs to wear a life jacket beforehand.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard Life Jacket Wear Rate Observation Study in 2019, the average life jacket wear rate for adults was 11.6% on all boats, excluding PWCs. (11)

Although 11.6% might sound small at first glance, this number has been in a strong positive trend, as it has been relatively increased by 49% since 2010.

One of the most interesting boating safety facts is, contrary to adults, the life jacket wear rate for underage kids was 65.8% on all boats, excluding PWCs. 

This number has also been in a strong positive trend, as it has been relatively increased by 26% since 1999.

The kids’ life jacket wear rate was the highest at 71.9% in 2017.

The reality is that only 11.6% of adults wear life jackets, whereas 65.8% of underage kids wear life jackets. 

This statistic shows that adults care about their children but fail to assess the risk related to themselves.

The life jacket wear rate for all boats and boaters combined was 24.0% in 2019. This is a relative increase of 13% since 1999. 

Collision with another vessel is the most common type of boating accident in the U.S.

Boat collisions are the most dangerous and frequently occurring boating incidents on waters. The impact of deadly boat crashes is devastating, to say the least.

Collisions will often cause vessel damage, personal injury, and death. 

According to the U.S.C.G collision statistics, collision with another vessel has been the primary type of boating accident in recent years. (3)

In 2020, there were 1379 collisions with other vessels, up 22.33% from the previous year, and fatal collisions of 66, up 28.79% from the previous year.

YearAccidentsDeathsInjuries
20201,37966831
20191,07147650
20181,02840661

The top five types of boating accidents in the U.S. are:

  • Collision with recreational vessel
  • Flooding/swamping 
  • Collision with a fixed object
  • Grounding
  • Falls overboard

The majority of boating accidents take place in calm waters.

Every boater knows that weather and water conditions are the utmost important factor to consider before going boating.

Surprisingly enough, marine accident statistics show that most boating accidents in the U.S. happen in calm waters with waves less than 6″. (3)

According to the U.S.C.G. reported accidents, 56% of all boating accidents in 2020 happened in calm and 29% in choppy waters.

WavesAccident %AccidentsDeaths
CalmLess than 6″56%2,946409
Choppy>6″ to 2′29%1,519179
Rough>2′ to 6′9%46281
Very roughLarger than 6′2%8614
UnknownUnknown4%25284

Additionally, 75.4% of accidents in 2020 took place during the day with good visibility.

The majority (41%) of boating accidents happen between 2:31 PM and 6:30 PM, but the highest number of fatal accidents (24%) happen between 12:00 AM to 2:30 AM.

Boat propeller accidents surged 44% during the Covid pandemic.

Boat propeller accidents are one of the worst boating accidents one can think of. Getting hit by a propeller in the water is a recipe for disaster. 

Boat propeller strikes are usually the second or third event of an evolving boat accident. The first event usually being a collision with another vessel and an unexpected entry into the water. (12)

According to Coast Guard 2020 boat propeller accident statistics, there were 247 accidents where at least one person was struck by a propeller. This is a 44.44% increase from the previous year.

Propeller-related accidents resulted in 39 deaths, an 11.43% increase from the previous year.

YearAccidentsDeathsDamages
202024739$511,850
201917135$100,402
201817725$80,389

82% of vessels that participated in accidents where a propeller struck a person were 16 ft to less than 26 ft in length.

As covered at the beginning of this article, boating fatalities as a whole surged 25.1% during the Covid pandemic. 

This can be explained by the sudden surge in first-time inexperienced boat owners who cannot yet assess the risk of potential boating disasters.

References

  1. Soundings Trade Only Magazine. 2020. First-Time Boat Buyers Leap in 2020. Link
  2. Naples Daily News. 2021. Expect record number of first-time boaters on the water Memorial Day weekend in Southwest Florida. Link
  3. U.S. Coast Guard. 2020. Recreational Boating Statistics 2020. Link
  4. U.S. Coast Guard. 2019. Recreational Boating Statistics 2019. Link
  5. The Bureau of Economic Analysis. 2020. Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, U.S. and States, 2019. Link
  6. National Marine Manufacturers Association. 2021. Economic Impact Infographics by State. Link
  7. Boat US Foundation. 2021. Boating Under the Influence. Link
  8. U.S. Coast Guard. 2021. Blood Alcohol Content. Link
  9. Washington State Parks. 2019. FACT SHEET: Life jackets. Link
  10. United States Power Squadrons. The Other 20% – When Wearing a Life Jacket Is Not Enough. Link
  11. U.S. Coast Guard. 2019. 2019 Life Jacket Wear Rate Observation Study. Link
  12. Propeller Safety. Typical Propeller Accident Scenarios. Link

FAQ

How many boating accidents happen per year?

Over 5,000 boating accidents occur yearly in the United States.

What is the main cause of fatal boating accidents?

Alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; where the primary cause was known.

What is the cause of most boating accidents?

Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed, and machinery failure rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents. 

How many boats sink a year?

According to U.S. Coast Guard, 211 boats sank in the U.S. in 2020.

What causes most boat collisions?

Operator inattention, inexperience, and improper lookout are the factors in boating collisions.

What is the most common cause of boating deaths?

Where the cause of death was known, 75% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. 

What are the odds of dying on a boat?

The U.S. boating fatality rate is 6.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. 

Which state has the most boating accidents?

In 2020, states with the highest number of boating accidents were Florida, North Carolina, and Texas.

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