Section II - Boating Accident Program

This section summarizes 1999 boating accident statistics. Law enforcement agencies, the United States Coast Guard, educational institutions, and California boaters use these statistics to help improve boating safety.

This section contains the following subsections:

A. Limitations of the Analysis D. Accidents Involving Youths
B. 1999 Accident Summary E. Fatal Boating Accidents
C. Accidents Involving Personal Watercraft F. Alcohol Use and Fatal Boating Accidents

A. Limitations of the Analysis

Reportable Accidents

The statistics in this report reflect every reported boating accident in California in 1999. Although the Department believes that all accidents involving fatalities were reported, many non-fatal accidents are never reported to the Department or law enforcement agencies due to noncompliance with, or ignorance of, the reporting law. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that only about 10% of accidents are actually reported to state programs nationwide, while the Red Cross estimates that only 2.5% are reported.

An increase in the number of reported accidents from year to year might not necessarily reflect an increase in the actual number of accidents, but rather might result from improved reporting efforts or follow-up research from other sources (e.g., newsclippings). To improve the accuracy of accident statistics, the Department has increased its efforts to obtain all accident reports by working closely with law enforcement agencies.

Accident Statistics

A total of 907 accidents were reported to the Department in 1999. Some statistics in this report are measured as a percentage of these total accidents. Often, there is more than one cause of an accident, more than one operator involved in an accident, or more than one vessel involved. Therefore, the number of vessels, like the number of operators involved in accidents, usually exceeds the number of accidents. A total of 1,123 operators were involved in boating accidents in 1999. Many statistics presented in this report are measured as a percentage of the number of operators involved or the number of causes—rather than the 907 accidents—in order to provide more accurate comparisons.

Alcohol Use

Analysis of alcohol-related accidents can be difficult for the following reasons:

   Delayed Accident Reporting—Often there is significant delay between the time of the accident and the reporting of the accident to law enforcement agencies. Delays can happen for a variety of reasons including emergency care needs and the desire to avoid legal consequences. (Operators/passengers may be reluctant to report themselves as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.) Unfortunately, these delays can result in the loss of accurate evidence due to alcohol burn-off.

   Delayed Body Recovery—Sometimes, the bodies of boating accident victims are not recovered immediately. A delay of more than two days in recovering a body can result in significantly altered blood alcohol levels due to the process of decomposition, a by-product of which is blood alcohol.

19% of boating fatalities in 1999 could not be tested for alcohol for the above reasons.

B. 1999 Accident Summary


The 907 accidents reported to the Department during 1999 involved 491 injuries, 42 fatalities, and $2.86 million in property damage. The total numbers of reported accidents, injuries, and the total property damage were higher than 1998 levels, (772, 413, and $2.3 million, respectively). Reported fatalities (42) were considerably lower than last year (58).

We believe the increase in accidents from 775 in 1998 to 907 in 1999 is attributable to two factors. In 1998, fewer people went boating due to adverse weather conditions throughout much of California related to the El Niño effect. Weather conditions were much improved in 1999, although below-average temperatures persisted in some areas of the state until mid-summer. Additionally, improved communication between the Department and other agencies may have resulted in an increase in the number of accidents reported to the Department.

Fatal boating accidents, however, decreased in 1999. A portion of this decrease can be attributed to fewer whitewater fatalities in 1999. Unlike 1998, when the cold weather conditions resulted in late run-off of the snow pack, which in turn caused hazardous river conditions, contributing to 9 deaths, only 2 boating fatalities occurred in 1999 as a result of whitewater activities.

31% of boating fatalities occurred during fishing activities. Operator inexperience and inattention, coupled with hazardous weather and water conditions, caused most of these accidents. In several cases, the improper distribution of weight caused capsizings or falls overboard. In other cases, operators failed to heed small craft advisories and did not carry the proper safety equipment aboard their vessels.

Although accidents involving Personal Watercraft increased from 229 in 1998 to 264 in 1999, this total is well below the 391 accidents which occurred in 1997. This overall decrease in accidents is primarily attributed to the changes in laws affecting PWC operators beginning in January 1998 and is discussed further in the section, Accidents Involving Personal Watercraft.

In recent years, the sport of water skiing has evolved beyond traditional water skiing, now encompassing the towing of inner tubes, kneeboards, and wake boards as well. The increased popularity of these activities is reflected in the accident totals. Although water skiing accidents have decreased in recent years, accidents involving wake boarding have increased. Click here for a five-year comparison of water skiing-related accidents.

Exhibit II-1 presents boating accident statistics in California from 1980 through 1999.

Exhibit II-2 presents 1999 boating accident statistics by county.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Exhibit II-3 presents types and causes of accidents by vessel type. Overall, the most common type of accident involved collision with another vessel (36%). The most common type of accident involving open motorboats was collision with another vessel (30%), followed by accidents involving flooding/swamping. Most accidents involving PWC were collisions with other vessels (69%), followed by falls overboard (12%).

The most frequently stated causes of accidents overall were operator inexperience (39%), operator inattention (31%), and excessive speed (25%). Hazardous weather/water was a cause of 15% of accidents. (A boating accident can have more than one attributable cause.)

The leading causes of accidents involving open motorboats were operator inexperience and operator inattention. The leading causes of accidents involving PWC were operator inexperience and excessive speed. Overall, these causes were consistent with previous years.

Time and Location

Accidents occurred mostly during the summer months (May through September), on weekends, between 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.

Exhibit II-4 presents the accidents, injuries, and fatalities by location. Overall, most accidents and injuries occurred on lakes, 40% and 48% respectively, and more occurred on northern lakes.

Vessel Type and Length

In 1999, open motorboats accounted for approximately 52% of all vessels registered in California, and PWC accounted for 18%. Open motorboats were involved in 48% of all accidents and PWC were involved in 29% of all accidents. This indicates that PWC were involved in a disproportionately high number of accidents. However, the number of PWC involved in accidents has decreased substantially in the last two years and is down 32% since 1997, when accidents involving these vessels were at an all-time high of 391. Most vessels (69%) involved in accidents were less than 26 feet long.

Exhibit II-5 presents registration and accident statistics for open motorboats, PWC, and other vessels during 1999.

Operator Age

Overall, operators in the 21-30 age group were involved in accidents more often than those in any other age group. The 31-40 age group was involved most often in open motorboat accidents, followed by the 21-30 age group. Most PWC accidents involved operators in the 11-20 age group or the 21-30 age group.

Operator Owner Status

45% of all vessels involved in accidents were operated by the registered owner. 36% of vessels were operated by someone other than the registered owner (26% were borrowed and 10% were rented).

C. Accidents Involving Personal Watercraft


A personal watercraft is a small vessel that uses an internal combustion engine powering a jet pump or propeller. It is designed to carry from one to four persons, and to be operated by a person sitting, standing, or kneeling on the vessel rather than the conventional manner of sitting or standing inside the vessel.

The use of PWC is subject to all state, local, and federal regulations governing the operation of all powerboats of similar size.

As of December 31, 1999, there were 171,891 PWC registered in California, comprising 18% of registered vessels. The table below shows the total number of PWC registered in California from 1993 through 1999.

Personal Watercraft (PWC) Registrations



A total of 264 PWC-related accidents were reported in 1999, resulting in 215 injuries, 6 fatalities, and $447,550 in property damage. The total number of reported accidents, injuries, and the total property damage were higher than 1998 levels (229, 161 and $384,050, respectively). The number of reported fatalities was lower than last year (9).

Exhibit II-6 presents a seven-year summary for PWC accidents, injuries, fatalities, and property damage.

Exhibit II-7 presents 1999 reported PWC-related accidents by county.

Accounting for 18% of registered vessels, PWC were involved in 14% of all fatalities and 16% of all property damage, but were involved in 29% of all accidents and 44% of all injuries.

Although accidents involving personal watercraft increased from 229 in 1998 to 264 in 1999, accidents involving them have decreased significantly (32%) since the 1997 boating season, during which there were 391 PWC-related accidents.

Note: Adverse weather conditions in 1998 accounted for an unusually low number of accidents, including accidents involving PWC. We believe the 1999 PWC-related accident totals more clearly represent the effect of these laws.

This decrease appears to be attributable mainly to two new laws affecting PWC that took effect in January 1998. The first law prohibited activities such as wake jumping within 100 feet of another vessel, spraying down other vessels, and playing "chicken." These activities now constitute endangerment of life, limb, and property. The second law raised the minimum age to operate a vessel of over 15 HP alone from 12 to 16 years of age. Since the vessel of choice of operators between 12 and 16 is the PWC, restricting this group's ability to operate vessels has resulted in a decrease in PWC-related accidents. This reduction in accidents is also discussed in Accidents Involving Youths.

PWC accidents involving radical maneuvers such as wake jumping, donuts, and spraying other vessels fell from 88 in 1997 to 58 in 1999, a decrease of 34%.

PWC accidents involving youth operators fell from 120 in 1997 to 63 in 1999, a decrease of 48%.

PWC accidents involving fatalities also decreased from 9 in 1998 to 6 in 1999. Five of these fatalities involved collisions with other vessels.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Although PWC-related accidents have decreased considerably, types and causes of accidents involving PWC have remained consistent with findings from previous years.

Most reported PWC accidents involved collisions with other vessels (69%). 12% of accidents involved falls overboard, and 5% involved persons being struck by boats/propellers. Among collisions between two vessels, the second vessel was most often another PWC (67%).

The most common causes of all PWC accidents were operator inexperience (66%), excessive speed (52%), and operator inattention (51%). (Some accidents have more than one attributable cause.) All of these causes are operator-controllable factors.

In collisions between two PWC, 34% of the operators knew each other and were riding together. Of that group, unsafe following distances contributed to 44% of collisions and 25% involved radical maneuvers (spraying other vessels, wake jumping, donuts, or playing "chicken").

Operator Age

PWC operators in the 11-20 and the 21-30 age groups were involved in more accidents than any other age group.

Operator Owner Status

71% of PWC involved in accidents were operated by someone other than the registered owner (52% were borrowed and 19% were rented).

Boater Use Study

Several years ago, the Department noted the disproportionality of PWC-related accidents. For example, in 1994, PWC constituted 13% of the vessel population, but were involved in 36% of the accidents. However, if PWC spent more time underway than traditional boats, would the accident rate still be disproportionate? To answer this concern, the Department funded a study that was conducted by California State University Sacramento to survey boat owners to determine the amount of time boats were underway.

The study, conducted in 1995 and 1996, found that, for every day on the water, PWC spent 5.2 hours underway, while traditional vessels only spent 3.6 hours underway. However, when controlled for hours underway (that is, if traditional boats spent the same amount of time on the water as PWC), the study found that the number of accidents and injury-related accidents involving PWC still exceeded those involving traditional boats.

The number of PWC-related accidents has decreased substantially in the last two years. Therefore, to see if the above finding was still true, the 1999 accident data was used in combination with the use data from the study to generate the following statistics:

  Despite the decrease in PWC-related accidents, the number of accidents and injury accidents involving PWC continues to exceed those involving traditional vessels when controlled for hours underway.

  When controlled for hours underway, there would have been 1 accident for every 651 PWC operating on California waterways, compared to 1 accident for every 764 traditional vessels.

Representative Accidents

  Two PWC collided following operation in close proximity to one another. Operator 1 had just completed a series of donuts and accelerated into the path of Operator 2, who was jumping wakes. Vessel 2 rode up and over Vessel 1, striking Operator 1 in the head. He sustained a head injury and a laceration to his mouth.

  A PWC operator was concentrating on trying to catch up with a second PWC and failed to notice that he had entered a crossing situation as the give-way vessel with an open motorboat towing a skier. When he saw the vessel, he did not know the appropriate action to take and continued to proceed toward it. Compounding the situation, the operator of the open motorboat was watching the progress of the skier and was unable to take action to avoid the collision. When he saw that a collision was imminent, he altered course quickly, which caused his propeller to strike the PWC operator and his passenger. Both occupants of the PWC sustained lacerations to their legs and the passenger also sustained an amputated toe.

  Two PWC operators were informally racing each other on a buoy course. Vessel 1 began to overtake Vessel 2. Operator 2 tried to stop Operator 1 from overtaking him by turning into his path, causing a collision and sustaining a broken femur.

  A PWC operator was turned facing his passenger and failed to notice that he was entering a crossing situation with another vessel. When he saw the vessel, he turned sharply to avoid it, causing his passenger to fall overboard. As the passenger fell, he twisted and broke his leg.

Additional Safety Concerns

  Many PWC operators do not realize that when they let off the throttle, they lose steering capability. Numerous accidents have resulted from this lack of knowledge.

  PWC sometimes present a danger to their riders because of the craft's lack of visibility when it capsizes. Riders who are attempting to remount their PWC are often not visible to other watercraft, and are liable to be struck by other vessels.

D. Accidents Involving Youths


Throughout this report, "youths" refers to persons under 18 years of age.

From 1987 through 1997, California law required a person to be at least 12 years of age to operate a craft of more than 10 HP. If an operator was under 12, a person 18 years of age or older had to be on board the vessel.

In 1998, the law changed; it now requires the operator of a craft of more than 15 HP to be at least 16 years of age. Persons 12-15 may operate if a person of at least 18 years of age is attentively supervising aboard the vessel.

Note: Exceptions to this law include the operation of a sailboat that does not exceed 30 feet in length or a dinghy used directly between a moored boat and the shore, or between two moored boats.


During the 1999 boating season, youth operators were involved in 7% of all accidents, 11% of injuries, and 5% of fatalities.

Exhibit II-8 presents a seven-year summary for youth operator accident statistics.

The number of accidents involving youths had remained consistent for three years prior to the 1998 boating season. However, since the previously mentioned state law took effect in January 1998, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of accidents involving operators under 16 years of age during the last two years. Accidents involving youth operators decreased 48%, from 120 in 1997 to 63 in 1999.

Of the 73 youth operators involved in accidents, 28 were under the age of 16, and 4 were under the age of 12. Of the operators under 16 years of age, 79% did not have an adult on board.

Fatal accidents involving youth operators decreased in 1999. Two youth operators were involved in fatal accidents, resulting in 2 fatalities. Both operators were 16 years old.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Collisions (83%) were the primary type of accident involving youth operators.

The most common cause of accidents involving youth operators was operator inexperience (78%). Operator inexperience was a factor in only 39% of accidents involving operators of all ages. Operator inattention was the second most common cause, followed by excessive speed.

Vessel Type

The vast majority (93%) of youth operators involved in accidents were operating PWC.

Fault Assessment

Youth operators were involved in 52 collisions with other vessels. Most of these collisions (80%) involved youth operators colliding with adult operators. Youth operators were exclusively at fault in 31% of these collisions, compared to 21% for adult operators. The largest percentage (43%) of accidents between youth and adult operators involved shared fault.

Representative Accidents

  An inexperienced 11-year old was operating a PWC without an adult on board. He was looking down at the steering console and failed to notice that he was overtaking a second PWC. His vessel rear-ended that vessel, climbing up and over it, injuring the operator as well as the passengers. The operator sustained a broken nose and several lacerations. One passenger sustained contusions and a back injury and the other sustained a concussion and internal injuries.

  A 14-year-old PWC operator was following a second PWC too closely. When Operator 2 reduced speed, she was unable to maneuver to avoid a collision and rear-ended Vessel 1, striking the operator in the back. The victim sustained a broken back, three broken ribs and a punctured kidney.

  A 17-year-old was operating a PWC for the first time. She failed to reduce her speed to compensate for rough water, causing her to fall forward and strike her face on the steering console. She was knocked unconscious by the impact and also broke her nose, but was kept afloat by her life jacket.

  A 16-year-old PWC operator approached an open motorboat with the intention of jumping the vessel's wake and failed to notice that the vessel was towing a second vessel. The PWC operator struck the tow line which knocked both occupants of the PWC overboard. The operator sustained severe rope burns to his shoulder and jaw and the passenger sustained a laceration to her jaw.

  Two 16-year-olds had constructed a raft and were paddling it down the river when the vessel came apart and sank. One made it safely to shore, but the other could not swim, was not wearing a life jacket and drowned.

Additional Safety Concern

Very young children riding on PWC can present serious safety problems. While riding in front of an operator, a child has easy access to the vessel controls and can easily manipulate them. Such situations have resulted in accidents. Seating a young child behind a PWC operator is unsafe as well, because he or she can easily fall overboard.

E. Fatal Boating Accidents


In 1999, 42 fatalities occurred on California waterways. This represents 4.4 fatalities per 100,000 registered vessels. The number of fatalities decreased from 58 in 1998 (6.5 per 100,000 registered vessels) and is the lowest number of boating-related fatalities since 1994.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Exhibit II-9 presents boating fatalities by type of accident and life jacket usage. The most common type of fatal accident involved vessels capsizing (43%), followed by collisions with other vessels (19%). Operator inexperience (40%), hazardous weather/water (36%), and operator inattention (36%) were the primary causes of fatalities. 62% of the victims drowned. Of that group, 88% were not wearing a life jacket.

Time and Location

The largest number of fatalities occurred during May and June. 48% occurred on weekends. 38% of fatalities occurred on lakes, 31% occurred on oceans/bays, 12% occurred in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta region, 10% on the Colorado River, and 10% on other rivers throughout the State.

Vessel Type and Length

55% of vessels involved in fatal accidents were open motorboats, and 14% were PWC. Even though PWC were involved in 29% of all accidents, they were not involved in nearly as many fatalities. PWC operators are more likely to wear life jackets, which may explain the lower fatality rate. Nearly all vessels involved in fatal accidents were less than 26 feet in length (86%).

Representative Accidents

  The operator and passenger of an open motorboat were out when the weather turned rough. They decided to return to shore, but on the way, the vessel capsized. There was only one life jacket on board, but it was too small for either of them. One clung to a gas can and the other to an ice chest. The operator became exhausted and drowned, but the passenger was able to make it to safety. The operator was not carrying flares, a radio, or any other safety equipment.

  The operator and two passengers were out fishing in an open motorboat. One passenger, a child, hooked a fish and the adults leaned over the side of the vessel to help pull it in, shifting all the weight in the vessel to shift to that side, swamping and capsizing the vessel and throwing everyone into the icy water. There were life jackets on board, but only the child was wearing one, which saved his life. The adults were unable to get the life jackets on in the water and drowned before they could reach shore.

  The operator of an open motorboat was docking in windy conditions. The passenger leapt out of the vessel onto the dock to assist the operator in docking. He lost his balance as he landed and fell backward into the deep water and drowned. He was a non-swimmer and had been wearing a life jacket but had removed it as they approached the dock.

  A PWC and an open motorboat met at a blind curve in a narrow channel. The PWC operator was traveling at a high rate of speed and did not realize that he was on the wrong side of the channel. The operator of the motorboat was an experienced boater and familiar with the river, but was under the influence of alcohol. Both operators were traveling too fast considering the restricted visibility and collided. A passenger aboard the motorboat sustained a broken arm, the PWC operator sustained back injuries and contusions, and his passenger died upon impact.

  The operator of a PWC overtook, and then cut in front of, an open motorboat at a high rate of speed, causing a collision. The operator of the PWC sustained multiple fractures to his arm and leg and the PWC passenger sustained fatal head injuries.

F. Alcohol Use and Fatal Boating Accidents


In 1987, state law made it illegal to have a blood alcohol level of 0.10% or more while operating a recreational vessel. In 1991, the legal limit was decreased to 0.08%. Furthermore, a "boating under the influence" conviction now appears on Department of Motor Vehicles records and can be used to suspend or revoke a vehicle driver's license.

Only victims of fatal boating accidents were tested for alcohol levels. A person with a blood alcohol level of 0.035% or higher is assumed to be "under the influence." The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that when the concentration of alcohol in a person's bloodstream reaches this level, noticeable changes in competence occur.

As was discussed earlier (on page 14), testing was not conducted on all victims due to delayed accident reporting or delayed body recovery, which can alter blood alcohol levels.


Among the 42 fatalities, 34 were examined to determine their blood alcohol level. Of these 34 victims, 7 (21%) had blood alcohol levels equal to or greater than 0.035%. Four of the victims were operators and three were passengers.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Four of the alcohol-related fatalities were the result of single vessel accidents. In these accidents, the victims drowned and none were wearing life jackets. The majority involved capsizing or falls overboard. The additional three fatalities involved victims who died of blunt trauma as a result of collisions between two vessels.

Type of Vessel

A total of 10 vessels were involved in these accidents, all motorized. Of these vessels, 8 were open motorboats and 2 were PWC. 80% of the vessels were less than 26 feet in length.

Time and Location

Of the 7 alcohol-related fatalities, 4 occurred in lakes, 2 occurred on the Colorado River, and 1 on the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.

Alcohol-Related Fatalities Involving Motorized Vessels

In January 1986, the Department submitted the Boating Safety Report to the California Legislature. This report analyzed alcohol-related boating accidents between November 1, 1983 and October 31, 1985, and concluded that 59% of all fatalities involving motorized vessels were alcohol-related (where testing could be conducted).

The Department conducted a second alcohol-related boating accident study between January 1, 1993, and December 31, 1994. This study concluded that 23% of all fatalities involving motorized vessels were alcohol-related, a significant reduction from the 1986 study.

The table below shows the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities involving motorized vessels (where alcohol-related testing could be conducted) from 1993 to 1999. In 1999, 28 of the 34 victims tested for alcohol-relatedness were killed in accidents involving motorized vessels. Of that group, 25% were alcohol-related.

Percentage of Alcohol-Related Fatalities
Involving Motorized Vessels