Measuring boating education’s impact

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Recreational boating is a safe and enjoyable activity for millions of Americans. However, every year, a segment of the recreational boating population is involved in boating accidents that result in injury or even death. Recreational boating professionals continue to work to eliminate preventable fatalities and casualties by all means, including delivering enhanced boater education and targeted awareness efforts. The guiding premise is that boaters who receive specific, standardized, targeted information about how to recognize and avoid hazards will make sound, risk-based decisions to ensure safe passage for themselves and their passengers. 

In 2007 Gail Kulp (former NASBLA Education Director) and Emily King (Ohio Division of Watercraft Boating Education Program Manager, now retired) identified a correlation between the amount of time which had passed between a state’s boating education mandate and the motorized fatality rate for that state. In general, data and assumptions based on this premise remain true today. More than 20 years ago, a number of state programs recognized that a foundation of boater knowledge could prove vital in assuring safe boating participation and, as a result, implemented state requirements for boater education.

While a variety of factors can affect recreational boating fatalities and fatality patterns nationally or in any individual jurisdiction, continued analysis suggests promising relationships between the implementation of boating education requirements and decreasing fatality rates over time. For example, collectively, the 17 states with the longest history of boating education requirements for certain powerboat operators also exhibit the lowest average powerboat fatality rates of all the states. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Comparison of 5-Year Average Motorized Fatality Rates (2009-2013)
Based on Number of Years since Initial Implementation of State Required Boater Education

education chart

Based on NASBLA records, seventeen states have had boating education requirements in place for more than 20 years. New York, with requirements in place since 1960, has the longest history of any state. The other states are Michigan (since 1967); Minnesota and Wisconsin (since 1975); Illinois (since 1978); North Dakota (since 1985); Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey (since 1988); Vermont (since 1991); Connecticut (since 1992); Delaware, Georgia, Alabama, and Montana (since 1994); Indiana and Utah (since 1995). On average, these 17 states have a motorized fatality rate of 3.69.

Twenty-three states have had boating education requirements in place for 10 years to less than 20 years and four states have had education requirements in place for less than 10 years. Together these twenty-seven states have a motorized fatality rate of 5.04. Six states with no ‘significant’ education requirements have an average motorized fatality rate of 7.47.

The National Boating Education Standards, building upon the success of these and other state programs, were first adopted by the NASBLA membership in 1999. Prescribing the minimum body of knowledge to effect safe, legal and enjoyable recreational boating for motorized boats, the Standards serve as a basis for today’s boating education knowledge courses recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard and approved by NASBLA and the individual states.

With enactment of the Standards, the face of boating safety education changed dramatically. NASBLA National Boating Education Standards are referenced in numerous laws and regulations as the minimum criteria for mandated boater education. Today every U.S. state and territory offers a state-specific course that has been individually reviewed and approved by NASBLA as meeting the National Boating Education Standards, making voluntary acceptance of this standard a true measure of uniformity across the states even when mandatory requirements may differ. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2

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In the 13 years since the Standards’ adoption, millions of students have received certificates in courses approved as meeting the National Boating Education Standard. In fact, for the nine-year period of 2006-2014, U.S. Coast Guard Performance Report Part II statistics show that nearly four-million boaters successfully earned a certificate meeting the Standards. These data reflect significant “output,” but they also point to the growing need to try to evaluate the relative effectiveness or “outcomes” of current boating education programs based on these educational mandates and standards. 

Editor’s Note: The states and the Coast Guard use the Performance Report Part II (PRPII) form as the primary method to capture recreational boating data. All 56 states and territories are required to submit this form to the Coast Guard annually.

For example, can we effectively determine the contribution of mandates to safer boating behavior by the boater on the water? Has mandated boater education been the driving force to reduce boating casualties in jurisdictions that have implemented that mandate? Has enactment of the standards, including a state requirement for course completion, created a safety culture within the individual state’s boating community which continues to grow over time or is it a reflection of a safety culture? Can state programs, which vary widely across the U.S., be effectively compared? Is there a critical mass of educated boaters needed to result in a ‘tipping point’ of safe boat operation on the water? Which boat types, including horsepower limits, must be addressed by a mandated state course to result in improvements to safe boating? What data tools can help the states make informed decisions on future program changes?

Questions Raised from Available Data
Currently, boater education is mandatory for only a percentage of the boating public. According to data provided by Harry Hogan, a contractor with the USCG Boating Safety Division, in calendar year 2014, 27.5 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 10 was required to comply with a state mandatory education requirement. This represents an increase of 2.8 percent of the population from data available from the same source in 2012.

Figure 3

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A commonly used metric is the rate of powerboat deaths per 100,000 registered powerboats. Since the vast majority of state boating education requirements impact only operators of powered boats (vs. non-powered boats), it would seem reasonable to examine the potential relationships between those education requirements and any changes in the rates of powerboat fatalities. To level the sometimes extreme variations in annual state data, the fatality rate is illustrated using five-year averages in Figure 4.

Figure 4

2001 Fatalities (681)

Review of this chart raises several questions:  In general, it appears that the majority of Great Lakes states have fatality rates below the national average. Are cold temperatures and a shortened boating season the reason for lower fatality rates in the Great Lakes and northern, cold weather regions of the country? Those could be factors. However, they are not likely to be the sole factors because some cold weather states like Alaska and Idaho do not rank among the states with the lowest fatal accident rates. So, what other factors might be influencing the lower fatality rates associated with dark blue states in Figure 4? Could one of those be a quantifiable relationship between powerboat operator education and fatality rates?

NASBLA’s Education & Outreach Committee has been discussing these types of questions for many years. In 2014, the committee recommended NASBLA submit a grant application to the USCG to conduct a statistical review of the metrics of boater education. We are pleased to report that financial support has been approved for statistical review work beginning this fall.

The project will involve identifying “key performance indicators” – a set of metrics associated with the most critical outputs and outcomes of education, awareness and outreach policies and programs. Among those that will be evaluated for inclusion in the Dashboard are:

Metrics based on statistics, survey estimates, and other readily available data collected at the state and/or national levels (such as fatalities, casualties, numbers of boats, boater participation, and so on);

Metrics developed from the impact of program policy such as that identified in the 2006 USCG report A Comparative Analysis of Recreational Boating Policies: “Quick Phase-In” Education vs. Other Education Policies (data to be updated);

Metrics developed from the impact of program policy (such as the percentage of population covered by an education mandate reduced by a factor for exempted boats, and so on);

Metrics for awareness and outreach based on recognized ‘best practices’ (such as school programs, distribution of boating safety materials, work with media, TV and radio public service announcements (PSAs), use of social media, and so on); and 

Additional program metrics, some of which will be identified and updated with support from this grant project. 

With this financial support, NASBLA will facilitate a process to create a tool for targeted education program planning, facilitating the states’ use of a consistent and standardized process to capture and visually illustrate program data and allow comparisons of that data to internal performance goals and to benchmark programs. With this initiative, we hope to move even closer to measuring boating education’s impact to the boating safety program. Determining how to focus education efforts will not only save time and resources, but it should also save lives. That, of course, is our greatest task.

For further information, contact Pamela Dillon, Director – Education and Standards, at pam@nasbla.org.

3 comments

  • It seems the only data missing from this study is the potential higher percentage of boating accident and fatalities in States where online courses are allowed vs in-classroom. This is a significant piece of data to omit from such a study and one that many would like to see.

  • Utah’s boater education law is only for operators of PWC’s under 18, not all PWC’s as indicated in the graph.

  • Very good info. I can use this in our classes at the USCG AUX in Stuart FL.

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