What Causes the Most Fatalities on a Boat? You Might be Surprised!

Woman wearing a life preserver to help prevent drowning when ending up in the water unintentionally

Although you might not enjoy thinking about it, to be a safe and conscientious boat operator, you must be aware of what causes the most fatalities on a boat. Hopefully this helpful information will help you be better prepared the next time you’re on a boat.

What causes the most fatalities on a boat? The highest number of boat fatalities is caused by boat collisions or accidents. The chief cause of death in these accidents is not a victim succumbing to their injuries but drowning. 

In this article, I’ll talk further about boat fatalities, including some sobering statistics. I’ll also present boater safety tips that you won’t want to miss, so make sure you keep reading.

Most Boat Fatalities Are Caused By…?

Getting right into it, the overwhelming majority of boat fatalities are caused by collisions, with one or both boat operators being found responsible for said collision.

That said, two people are not necessarily needed for a fatal collision to occur. 

Boat accidents with other boats are extremely common, but a boat operator can also crash into a stationary object and cause fatalities that way.

As I’ve discussed in another article and mentioned in the intro as well, drowning is what causes the most boat accident fatalities, not a person’s injuries.

In most cases, these victims don’t even get to go to the hospital to be treated for their injuries because they never make it that far. 

It’s not necessarily that the victims are crushed by the boat and cannot get out from underwater, although that does happen. 

A lot of the time, unfortunately, it’s that the boat victims chose not to wear a life jacket.

A 2021 report on Wisconsin’s fatal boating accidents found that, out of 25 fatal accidents involving boats where 17 people drowned, three out of 25 people were wearing a life vest.

One of the life jacket wearers did drown, because it is indeed possible to drown when wearing a life jacket if the vest isn’t rated for the type of aquatic activity you’re doing. 

The other two people who were wearing life jackets died because of the severity of their injuries from the accident.

Unlike many boating collision victims, these two people got to be seen by a medical professional.

Now, Wisconsin is one state of many, but you’d be surprised how few people wear their life jackets and how detrimental that can be. 

After all, drowning can occur at any time when on a boat, not solely in the aftermath of a collision!  

What Boat Operator Behaviors Contribute to Most Fatal Boat Accidents?

Going back to my point from before, when a boating collision happens, it’s the responsibility and fault of one or both of the boat operators. 

So what causes boat operators to lose control of their boats or simply not avoid a collision in enough time?

It doesn’t come down to one reason, of course, but a multitude. Let’s take a look.

Lack of Proper Training/Understanding of the Boat

In most states, you cannot operate a boat without going through at least some introductory training on boater protocols and safety.

However, that doesn’t always mean that the information sticks, or that the boat operator ever understood the information in the first place.

If a boat operator doesn’t grasp all the features and functions of their boat and gets to know their vessel inside and out, then they’re truly not equipped to operate it. It’s as simple as that.

That doesn’t always mean that a boat operator does the right thing. Even without grasping how their boat works in full, they could go out on the boat anyway.

Maybe they think they’ll learn by doing.

In the meantime, they’re a risk to themselves, any fellow passengers on the boat, and any other boats in the vicinity. 

Not Paying Attention

When you drive a boat, you have to think of it the same way as driving a car.

You’re the one in charge of the vehicle, and that means you must be the one paying attention and remaining in control the entire time.

Sure, you’re allowed to chat and even entertain to a degree, but your driving duties must be paramount above all else.

Some boat operators fail to realize this. They’ll allow their attention to lapse, usually because they’re trying to be a good party host.

In these moments of lapsed attention, anything could happen. The boat could strike a dock or collide with another boat. 

The captain would be as caught off-guard as the rest of the passengers. They won’t be ready to act and get the boat to safety right away, which can worsen the extent of the damage. 

Failing to Look Out at Their Surroundings

A boat operator must be cognizant of their surroundings at all times. 

This is how they can see another boat approaching from a distance or a potential obstacle several feet away. 

Failing to check one’s surroundings is not the same thing as failing to pay attention. The former is a moderate lapse in judgment while the latter is a complete lapse in judgment.

Both can be fatal errors. 

Even if the boat operator’s vessel doesn’t crash this time or the next time, it’s only a matter of time before it does because they’re not aware of their surroundings.

Imagine getting into a car and driving without ever checking any of your mirrors. It’s a terrifying proposition, yet some boat operators do the equivalent.  

Alcohol Use

Boats are a frequent site of parties, and as such, adults who are enjoying a day on a boat will usually do so while imbibing alcohol.

It’s not safe for anyone on the boat to consume too much alcohol. Passengers can fall overboard as they lose their senses and balance, and then the boat operator could potentially be found to be at fault.

The boat operator is supposed to exercise the utmost control, and so they should never consume alcohol, even if everyone else on the boat is.

However, that’s easier said than done. A boat operator might not want to seem like a party pooper, or perhaps they genuinely want to engage with their friends and family on the boat, so they drink.

If your blood alcohol level or BAC is 0.02 percent, it can change your mood, cause you to lose your sense of judgment, make multitasking difficult (something you have to do often when commandeering a boat), and reduce your visual functions.

Once your BAC hits 0.05 percent, your response times slow, your ability to steer decreases, you’ll struggle to track any moving objects, and you’ll feel more uncoordinated.

At a BAC of 0.08 percent, your self-control and perception are impaired, your speed control goes out the window, you experience short-term memory loss, and you cannot concentrate to the fullest extent.

Should your BAC reach 0.10 percent, now you have slurred speech, almost no reaction time, and a reduced ability to brake. 

Exceeding a BAC of 0.15 percent causes severe balance loss, reduced auditory information processing, and vehicle control impairment.

As you can see, even a little bit of alcohol is enough to put a boat operator at an increased risk of an accident! 


Whether it’s because they’re consuming alcohol or simply want to show off their friends, boat operators go above the recommended speed limit all the time. 

When this happens, they’re putting themselves, all their fellow passengers, and any other boaters in the vicinity in great danger. 

Like a car crash becomes deadlier at higher speeds, the same is also true of boat accidents.  

Drug Use

Finally, drug use can contribute to the fatal collisions that so often occur on boats each year.

Many prescription medications will lay out clear rules about driving after consumption, yet some people may ignore those rules and think they’re okay to drive anyway.

Substances outside of prescription medications such as hard drugs will obviously cause more severe effects akin to consuming alcohol, reducing a boat operator’s ability to control their vessel and make snap decisions. 

Tips for Being a Safer Boater (for Yourself and Others!)

Knowing what you do now about all the risks associated with boat accidents, chief among them loss of life, I want to wrap up this article by presenting a list of safety tips so you can drive safely.

Learn How to Drive a Boat

This is the big one. 

If you feel like your introductory boater safety course doesn’t go as in-depth as you wish it did, or even if the information was good but you still struggled, you need to continue your education beyond that course.

Enroll in a more in-depth course or study up on your own time. 

You want to be confident that when you drive a boat, you know what you’re doing. 

That entails understanding all components of your boat and how they work as well.

Always Carry Life Jackets

While ideally, you shouldn’t let anyone board your boat without a life jacket, I can see how you wouldn’t want to start anything with friends or family, so you might let it slide.

At the very least, if someone comes onto your boat without a life jacket, you want to have some spares that you can provide to them so they can be safe. 

You can’t use any ol’ life vest, but one that meets the approval of the U.S. Coast Guard. You need an assortment of life jacket sizes for various passengers as well. 

No Speeding

Sorry, but even to impress your buddies, speeding on a boat simply isn’t a smart idea. You’re putting your own life and the lives of everyone else you’re with at risk just to show off.

Check the Weather

Although it’s disappointing to have to cancel a big boating day you had been looking forward to, sometimes Mother Nature might dictate that you must.

In inclement weather, boating becomes much more dangerous than it usually is. Your visibility is reduced, the winds are stronger, and the waters choppier.

Your friends or family will understand why you have to postpone. It’s for everyone’s safety!

Don’t Overload Your Boat with Passengers

All boats have a weight limit, whether that’s several hundred or several thousand pounds. 

You need to know your boat’s weight limit and triple-check that you haven’t exceeded it before you set sail.

If you do exceed the limit, then your boat can easily sink once you’re in the water.

It’s not only people who can surpass the boat’s weight limit, of course, but cargo and gear as well. Be conscientious about what you’re bringing on your boat and never overload it.

The weight distribution on your boat is important too.

If all the passengers and gear are clustered to one side of the boat, then the weight distribution is thrown out of balance.

Your boat is likelier to tip, lean, or even capsize! 

Bring a First-Aid Kit 

If someone gets injured on your boat, you might not always be able to stop on a dime.

A first-aid kit filled with all the essentials such as different types of bandages, adhesives, medications, antiseptic wipes, gloves, and a thermometer can treat injuries on the spot. 

You should provide the first-aid kit. 

As time goes on and the items are depleted, make sure to replace them so that whenever someone needs something from the kit, they can get it. 

Don’t Consume Drugs and/or Alcohol and Then Operate the Boat

My last tip is another very important one.  

If you’re going to be operating your boat today, or if you think you are, then do not consume alcohol or drugs, even prescription substances.

If your doctor prescribed you a medication that you need to take daily, talk to him or her about the dosage and what’s safe to do after ingesting the medication. 

Your doctor might decide to adjust your dosage so you can operate a boat.

You’re well aware from the last section how impairment from drugs and/or alcohol is a highly serious matter. 

If you wouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car and drive, you shouldn’t drive a boat either!  

Similar Posts