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April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which was originally started to educate drivers on the road to the dangers posed by texting and driving and inattention to their surroundings. Nationally, there are more than 3,000 deaths a year attributed to distracted driving (3,477 in 2015 alone, with another 391,000 injured). And while there’s been a concerted effort to raise awareness of distracted driving on the road, we must not overlook that these same hazards apply to distracted boating on our lakes, rivers, and waterways.

Boaters are already under as much stress as motorists, with the added factors of wind, wave, sun, and glare which can easily lead to boater fatigue. Five seconds of distracted boating, the time it takes to send a text, is five seconds you’re not in control of your boat. A lot can happen in just five seconds.


In 2009, two maritime accidents prompted the United States Coast Guard to review internal policies. One accident in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, involved a Coast Guard vessel that collided with a small passenger vessel, injuring six passengers.

Later that same month in San Diego Harbor, California, a Coast Guard response boat collided with a vessel carrying 13 passengers, resulting in the death of an 8-year old child and serious injury to four other passengers.

The common link in both these accidents was the use of cellphones by Coast Guard crew-members who were on duty. The Coast Guard now bans the use of wireless devices by operators of Coast Guard boats and has limited their use by crewmembers.

The new rule applies to all designated boat crewmembers at all times unless use is specifically authorized by the boat coxswain, said USCG Public Affairs Officer Lisa Novak.

While finding concrete statistics on texting while boating is difficult, there have been some high-profile incidents. In July 2010, a tugboat operator, while towing a barge upriver on the Delaware River, was distracted by repeated use of his cellphone and hit A-Ride-The-Ducks boat with 37 passengers killing 2 aboard and flinging 35 others into the river.

More recently, in August of 2017, a recreational distracted boater crashed full speed into a small fishing vessel. Passengers avoided fatal injuries by leaping into the Columbia River. Fortunately, aside from minor injuries and hypothermia, there were no fatalities. This entire event was captured on a video that went viral, showing the crewmembers on the fishing boat trying to wave off the other boat traveling full speed, and the crash that followed.


Unfortunately, this trend is likely to increase. Lower fuel prices, the widespread adoption of mobile devices, and the entry of Millennials and Gen-Xers to recreational boating are all factors leading to more people in more boats with more cell phones.

As the boating industry has changed marketing tactics to tap into this younger market, they are positioning their products as mobile and social media friendly. Millennials and Gen-Xers spend more time on their cellphones than any other demographic. The gig/sharing economy and Peer-to-Peer boating necessitate the use of mobile devices on the water. Add to that the staggering number of apps aimed at recreational boaters and a certain amount of distraction is almost unavoidable.

Mobile devices used in boating are not necessarily a bad thing. Peer-to-Peer boating contributes to the industry by allowing people to experience the boating lifestyle that they may not otherwise be able to and to afford their own boats by offsetting costs. The influx of apps has made boating more approachable and appealing, driving more people to try this lifestyle. All this is a plus for the industry.


But education is still key. Many of these new boaters have no experience on the water, and what may work while on dry land can be dangerous in a boat. It’s still up to the industry to make safety a key element in day-to-day boating (a major barrier to boat ownership is the notion that boating is a dangerous or scary activity). Whether it’s working with the Coast Guard/Coast Guard Auxiliary or local boat clubs, promoting responsible boating safety is the best solution. Does your business have brochures or posters? How about checklists? Does your slip/boat rental contract outline safety issues that should be addressed? There are many ways to do this without being overbearing, while still keeping boating fun and friendly.

Make distracted boating awareness a part of your overall year-round safety marketing efforts. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Sponsor/Host Boating Safety Classes.
  • Offer pamphlets, brochures, other hand-outs.
  • Make signs or posters.
  • Offer Boater Fatigue Prevention education.
  • Sponsor national safety events.
  • Work in conjunction with local boat clubs or water authorities, or boat dealers.
  • School outreach–offer to speak to classes about boating safety and how fun boating is. Offer tours and field trips.
  • Invite local clubs like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.
  • Collaborate with local media outlets (TV, radio, newspapers).
  • Offer free boat rides and product demonstrations.
  • Host an open house.

While there is yet no major legislation on the horizon on the national level, laws probably won’t solve the safety issue. Texting and driving is illegal in many states yet texting and driving continue to be a problem. Some states have specific laws about texting while boating but many do not. Some are just now realizing the problem. From a grassroots approach, education and common sense will do more than legislation in the long run to keep boaters safe.

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