Staying safe this boating season

This is the next of a series of columns on how the law can impact your life. Each month we will focus on various aspects of the law relating to personal injuries, those that happen both on-the-job and otherwise, including mishaps which occur in driving vehicles, using products and receiving medical care. The column will also respond to legal questions relating to personal injury that are sent to us.

Healy Scanlon Law Firm is comprised of eight trial attorneys, two of whom are from Ireland. We are located downtown at 111 West Washington Street, Suite 1425, Chicago, Illinois 60602 (312-226-4236). . The firm concentrates in the representation of injured victims of all types of accidents.

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Staying Safe This Boating Season

For many, the beginning of summer means the beginning of boating season. Here in Illinois, from Lake Michigan to the various rivers and smaller lakes, there are many options available to boaters of all ages. For all the enjoyment recreational watercrafts provide, there are also important safety considerations that must be remembered when boating this summer. There are over 12 million registered recreational vessels in the United States. In 2010 alone, there were over 4,600 boating accidents, leading to over 670 deaths and more than 3,100 injuries. Not surprisingly, most of these accidents occur in the summer months (between May and September). By following these tips and using your common sense, you can ensure your summer on the water is both safe and enjoyable.

  • Make sure your boat has an experienced and attentive operator.

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Coast Guard Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety, operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, excessive speed, and alcohol use are the top five primary contributing factors in boating accidents, and were responsible for over 46% of all boating accidents in 2010. Boating safety instruction for drivers is available through a number of courses approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). Proper safety training decreases the potential for accidents and injuries.

  • Be on the lookout for inattentive or inexperienced drivers.

In Illinois, individuals as young as 10 years old are legally allowed to operate watercraft (although you must be 18 to operate a boat without adult supervision). Additionally, while some states do require a boating license or certification, in most states no license is required for recreational boating. In Canada, all boaters are required to obtain a Pleasure Craft Operator Card, but no similar requirement exists in the United States. Operator inexperience and not following the Rules of the Road combined to cause over 12% of all boating accidents in 2010. Collisions, either with other recreational vessels or fixed objects, account for over 23% of all accidents and nearly 10% of all boating deaths. Nearly 60% of accidents involved operators with no boating safety education. 84% of all boating deaths involved boats operated by drivers with no formal instruction or training.

  • Don’t drink and drive.

Alcohol use was a contributing factor in 7.2% of all accidents in 2010, and is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, responsible for 19% of all watercraft-related deaths. For many, a cold drink goes hand-in-hand with a warm day out on the water. Remember to drink responsibly, and to ensure that the driver of the boat is not intoxicated. Intoxicated boat operators are subject to penalties similar to those enforced against motorists who drive a car while intoxicated.

  • Follow the rules of the road.

Just like driving a car, there are rules of the road for operating watercraft. While it may seem that boat operators have unlimited freedom out on the water, there are rules that guide maneuvering in crowded waters, right of way, passing and being passed, proper lookout, speed, and other procedures that guide the safe operation of a boat. These rules are readily available on the internet through The BoatU.S. Foundation for boating safety and clean water and other organizations devoted to boating safety. Failing to obey the rules of the road was a contributing factor in over 200 accidents in 2010.

  • Bring maps if you are heading out on the water, and do not become overly reliant on electronic devices.

Equipment failure caused over 350 reported accidents in 2010, including electrical system failure and engine failure. Many times, GPS devices, cellular phones and other electronic devices may not be reliable for longer trips or trips on larger bodies of water. Be prepared for electrical failure and equipment failure by knowing your route and planning your trip in advance.

  • Make sure to have plenty of life jackets on board

Any time you are on the water, life jackets are a must. Life jackets are particularly important if your boat is 21 feet or smaller, as 80% of all drowning deaths were on boats less than 21 feet in length. In Illinois, boats must carry at least one Coast Guard-approved floatation device for each person on board. All children under 13 years old must wear a floatation device any time they are on a boat less than 26 feet long, unless they are below deck or in the cabin. Be sure to inspect the life jackets and floatation devices before heading out on the water. Like any product, life jackets are subject to wear, damage, breaking, or failure.

  • Follow warnings and instructions when using jet skis and other smaller watercraft

Many jet skis, wave runners, and smaller personal watercraft pose different risks than larger boats. Many jet skis simply have too much power-producing capacity and inexperienced or younger drivers can easily lose control. Problems can go from bad to worse when the jet ski or watercraft does not automatically deactivate when the driver falls off. Jet skis are jet-propelled, and when users fall off or are thrown from the watercraft, water from the jet propulsion system can cause severe damage to body orifices and internal organs. Propeller powered watercraft also pose risks to those who may fall in the water near the vessel. “Prop guards” are available to provide protection for some types of propeller-powered crafts. Because some of these risks are unique to wave runners and smaller watercraft, it is vital to look for and heed the warnings that often accompany these vessels. Wet suits are highly recommended when using any type of jet-propelled watercraft.

  • Obtain boat insurance.

Unfortunately, boat insurance is not required in most states. That is why it is especially important that you protect yourself in the event of a boating accident. Boat insurance policies work just like many auto insurance policies with coverage for liability, property damage, collision, theft and fire. Underinsured and uninsured boater coverage is also available and will provide you coverage if you are in an accident caused by an uninsured boater. Boating accidents can cause property damage and serious injuries. Having a good boat policy ensures that you are not left holding a large bill in the event of an accident.

Remember these tips to keep everyone on your boat safe this summer. Taking just a few precautions can ensure a fun, accident-free time on the water.

By: Martin Healy, Jr.

Patrick C. Anderson