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Current Trends Recreational Boating Fatalities Ohio, 1983-86

Currently, more than 60 million people engage in recreational (noncommercial) boating activities in the United States, compared with 45 million in 1975 (1). Because of the potential for death associated with the sport, the Ohio Department of Health reviewed data on recreational boating-related fatalities in Ohio for the 4-year period 1983-1986. Analysis was based on data from the Division of Watercraft's Boating Accident Reporting (BAR) system (2). This system requires the operator of a numbered vessel involved in a boating mishap (incident) to file a report if the incident results in: 1) loss of life, 2) personal injury requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, 3) complete loss of the vessel, or 4) damage to the vessel and other property exceeding $200.00. Only incidents resulting in loss of life were analyzed because reporting appeared to be most thorough for this category.

There were 107 recreational boating incidents resulting in 124 fatalities during the years 1983-1986. Twenty-six incidents were reported in 1983; 29, in 1984; 25, in 1985; and 27, in 1986. One hundred (93%) of these involved only one boat. The remaining seven were two-boat collisions involving more than one boat operator. For collisions, data were analyzed only for the operator of the boat in which the fatality occurred.

Most fatal incidents (69%) occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, and 73% occurred between June 1 and September 30 (Figure 1). Fatal incidents occurred most often during the afternoon and early evening (56% between noon and 8:00 p.m.), while 9% occurred between midnight and 4:00 a.m. Although fatal incidents occurred in 50 of Ohio's 88 counties during the 4-year period, 44 of 107 incidents (41%), occurred within the jurisdiction of the eight counties bordering Lake Erie.

The boat operators involved ranged from 14 to 74 years of age; the mean age was 38.3 years. Operators had varied boating experience, but over 50% had > 100 hours of experience on the water (Table 1). Alcohol use was noted in eight (7.5%) of the 107 reports. This information generally came from the investigating officials' reports and was based either on the testimony of witnesses or on direct physical evidence, such as the presence of alcoholic beverage containers. Confirmatory evidence, such as blood-alcohol levels, was usually not available.

The greatest number of fatalities involved motorboats (Table 2). However, fatality rates were higher for incidents involving smaller boats, such as canoes and rowboats. The highest overall fatality rate was in the miscellaneous group, which includes inflatable boats and rafts, small plastic vessels, jet skis, houseboats or pontoon boats, and vessels not otherwise classified.

Nine different types of incidents led to fatalities. Capsizing accounted for 42% of them, and falls overboard accounted for 29%. Activities at the time of incident included cruising (38%). drifting (17%), and fishing (15%). One death was associated with water skiing, and none involved racing.

Reported by: JK Hopewell, Div of Watercraft Ohio Dept of Natural Resources; T Halpin, MD, MPH, State Epidemiologist, Ohio Dept of Health. Div of Field Svcs, Epidemiology Program Office; Div of Injury Epidemiology and Control, Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Sports and recreational injuries are an important source of serious injuries and death in the United States. Almost 90% of all recreational boating deaths result from drowning, with the remaining 10% attributable to falls, burns, and other causes (3). In 1983, approximately 1,100 drownings involved recreational boats (4). In 1985, 1,116 deaths were associated with recreational boats (2). With the intention of increasing the public's awareness of boating safety and available resources, the National Safe Boating Council * sponsors National Safe Boating Week each year. This year it is the week of June 7-13.

Studies suggest that boat-operator experience and courses on boating safety may reduce the risk of mishaps (1,2). In the Ohio study, nearly one-third of the operators reported <20 hours of boating experience. Neither boating courses nor boating experience, however, have been formally evaluated for their effectiveness in preventing boating mishaps and injuries.

Unlike motor-vehicle operators, recreational boaters are generally not required to be licensed, and many have received no formal training in boat operation and safety procedures (5). However, operators of recreational boats are required to be familiar with laws and regulations, and enforcement of these laws can play an important role in preventing boating injuries.

Previous reports have identified alcohol use as a major contributing factor to deaths associated with recreational boating (1,3,5,6). An estimated one-third to two-thirds of recreational boating fatalities each year may involve alcohol (5). The low rates of apparent alcohol involvement in Ohio (7.5%) may be due to underreporting. Since 1970, Ohio has prohibited anyone under the influence of alcohol from operating a vessel. The law was expanded in 1986 to permit enforcement officials to require blood-alcohol testing of boat operators if there are reasonable grounds to believe they are under the influence of alcohol. While most states have a law prohibiting persons under the influence of alcohol from operating a vessel, less than half of these laws define legal intoxication. In addition, enforcement of these laws varies from state to state. The Ohio law has not been evaluated for its effectiveness in reducing the number of deaths and incidents associated with alcohol use.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which is responsible for overseeing the BAR system, estimates that it receives reports on nearly all fatal boating incidents. However, it also estimates that <10% of nonfatal incidents are reported (2). Information contained in these reports is provided primarily by the boat operator and is supplemented by the investigating state or local official.

Because of limited data, this study did not evaluate information about the victim or about the operators and vessels not involved in fatalities. Ohio is one of the few states requiring registration of all watercraft. However, certain types of boats, such as canoes and rubber rafts, may be underregistered, and the recreational boating fatality rates may be disproportionately high for these.

Potential prevention efforts aimed toward reducing recreational boating mishaps and deaths include: 1) a licensing procedure for recreational boat operators similar to that for motor vehicle operators; 2) completion of an approved boating safety course prior to boat registration; 3) improved enforcement of current laws, such as those restricting alcohol use and requiring personal flotation devices; 4) stiffer penalties for operating under the influence of alcohol; and 5) courses in swimming and rescue procedures.

  • The U.S. Coast Guard has a toll-free Boating Safety

Hotline: (800)368-5647. Information about National Safe Boating Week or the Council can be obtained by writing: Secretary, National Safe Boating Council, Inc., c/o Commandant (G-BBS-4), U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C. 20593.


  1. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Recreational boating fatalities: 1978-82. Statistical Bulletin 1984;65(2):2-7.

  2. U.S. Coast Guard. Boating statistics 1985. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, 1986; publication no. COMDTlNST M16754.1G.

  3. Baker SP, O'Neil B, Kerpf RS. The injury fact book, Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1984

  4. National Safety Council. Accident facts. Chicago: National Safety Council, 1986

  5. Transportation Research Board. Proceedings of workshop on alcohol-related accidents in recreational boating. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, 1986.

  6. National Safety Council. Accident facts. Chicago: National Safety Council, 1984.

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