Fatal Distraction

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Nearly one-fourth of the nation’s reported recreational boating accidents in 2015 were determined to either be the result of operator inattention or no proper lookout.

dis·tract·ed boat·ing

the practice of operating a boat while engaged in any activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the primary task of safe navigation.

It’s forecasted to be a perfect day for boating. Light winds all day. It’ll be the first sunny weekend day of the year with temps in the 80s. Best of all, the boat is gassed up and the family is all excited about getting out on the lake. Maybe we’ll first do a little fishing. Then, when it starts warming up, the kids can get some time being pulled on the new tube before we go to the island for our picnic lunch. Seriously, it just can’t get much better than this.

The fishing was a bit slower than hoped for, but hey, who really cares? It feels great to be outside and on the water. Time for some quality time with the kids pulling them on the tube…

This new tube is great. Plenty of room for both of the kids and good handles to hold on. They really like it when we get up some speed and they get whipped back and forth. It’s even better when we can find some waves from another boat passing by. They really enjoy getting a little air and being bounced around. This is perfect.

One of our favorite songs comes on, so the radio is turned up. Time to whip the kids into another turn. Something crazy must have just happened at work, because the boss just lit up my phone with a series of urgent text messages. Oh no! I didn’t see that big wake, and the cooler full of ice and food just spilled all over the deck. While my wife works on the spilled food, drinks and ice, I glance back at the kids bouncing over the wake. My hat blows off. I see the kids waving frantically, and I look back just in time to see another boat that I was about to plow into. Whew! Disaster diverted, but that was a close call!

Boating is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect with nature, friends and family. It’s a way to relax, get some sun, catch some fish, and just decompress from the strain of the workweek. In most cases, it turns out to be everything it was anticipated to be. Occasionally, though, things turn out so totally different.

As in the scenario above, it’s easy for a series of events to happen which take one’s mind from the primary responsibility of safely operating a boat. In many cases, even the distractions don’t get the best of us, and everyone returns to the dock safely. Sometimes, those distractions lead to tragic consequences.

Many people still do it from time to time, but we all know that texting and driving a motor vehicle is dangerous. It has been calculated that in the brief five seconds a person spends texting while driving at 55 miles per hour, it is like traveling the length of a football field while blindfolded. We might be able to get away with it many times without incident, but sooner or later something will happen in front of us that we aren’t prepared to respond to. The highway crash statistics serve as a grim reminder about the reality of this danger.

But many people think it’s different on the water, and, in fact, it is. It’s much more likely that nothing will surprise you if you only divert your attention for a short while. After all, there are no lanes to stay in and much less traffic. It’s fun and recreation, not driving. But again, the statistics tell the story.

Scan constantly_FWC
Boat operators should scan constantly and maintain 360-degree awareness.

Operator inattention and the lack of a proper lookout are the leading causes of recreational boating casualties. In fact, 23 percent of the nation’s reported recreational boating accidents in 2015 were determined to either be the result of operator inattention or no proper lookout. That number dropped to about 12 percent of reported fatalities, largely due to the fact that people who died in boating casualties were more likely to have fallen overboard and drowned.

Navigation Rule 5 was created for good reason. A prudent recreational boat operator is responsible to use all means available by sight and hearing to ensure that dangers are identified and avoided. But we are inundated with distractions and have actually become more comfortable as a society with being distracted. We take pride in the ability to “multi-task.” We are constantly accessible and engaged in conversations by phone and text. We rely more on electronic navigation systems to point the way rather than an occasional glance at a compass and landmarks. All these things equate to distractions.

In the boating safety profession, we really don’t spend enough time conversing with the boating public about the dangers of distracted boating. Alcohol and drug impairment, as a contributing cause to casualties, gets plenty of attention, although the statistics tell us that only 6.6 percent of reported boating accidents in 2015 were attributed to alcohol and/or drug use. Contrast that with the 23 percent attributed to inattention/improper lookout. It should be a clear case that there is much to be done to ensure that the public knows how important it is to pay close attention to everything that’s going on around them while boating.

As a community of boating safety professionals who are committed to keeping America’s waters safe, we need to join together to address this issue. It’s a simple one for the recreational boater to correct, but they must be made aware of the dangers in order to do so. Let’s challenge ourselves to work together toward that end.

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