2003 California Boating Safety Report

Executive Summary

The California Division of Boating and Waterways administers many programs to provide for boating safety on the State’s waterways.  The 2003 California Boating Safety Report summarizes activities performed in three key safety program areas:

•  Boating accident analysis

•  Law enforcement

•  Safety education.

This report also highlights the Department’s current program enhancements and future safety initiatives designed to reduce accidents and make California’s waterways safer.

California's Safety Campaign Theme - Safe Boating is BIG FUNThrough the boating accident program, the Department provides useful accident information to boaters, law enforcement agencies, and educators.  This information is communicated to the general public through the incorporation of relevant safety measures into the Department’s safety education programs and law enforcement training programs based on accident analysis.  Exhibit E-1 (below) provides a summary of key boating accident statistics for 2003.

The Department provides supplemental funding to counties for law enforcement activities and promotes uniform enforcement of boating laws through its law enforcement training program.  In 2003, the financial aid program allocated $8.1 million to 37 counties and two cities for enforcement personnel and operating costs.  In turn, the counties provided crucial boating law enforcement, as well as safety training for law enforcement officers and the public.  Exhibit E-2 (following Exhibit E-1) provides a summary of law enforcement activities supported by the Department’s financial aid program.

In 2003, the law enforcement training program included seven courses on various boating safety topics, in which Department staff trained approximately 400 marine enforcement officers.

The Department’s safety education programs provided nearly two million individuals with boating safety training and materials.

On-going partnerships with educational institutions, aquatic centers, and non-profit organizations provided crucial safety information to students and the general public.  Additionally, the Department sponsored a statewide radio and outdoor media campaign to promote life jacket use, environmental stewardship, and boating safety course participation.  Exhibit E-3 (following Exhibit E-2) provides a summary of the Department’s safety education outreach programs.

New programs developed in 2003 focus on improving public outreach and expanding law enforcement training.  Enhancements to existing programs reflect changing accident statistics and key safety concerns.  Exhibit E-4 (following Exhibit E-3) presents a summary of 2003 program enhancements and initiatives.

Exhibit E-1
2003 California Boating Accident Summary Statistics

Overall Boating Accident Highlights

•  This year, the number of boating accidents in California is the highest on record.  In 2003, a total of 963 boating accidents were reported to the Department, involving 502 injuries, 61 fatalities, and $3,820,000 in property damage.

•  Accidents involving water skiing activities have increased 38% since 2002.  17% of boating accidents occurred during water skiing activities.  (In this report, the term “water skiing” refers to all activities involving a vessel towing a person on a towline.)

•  About 34% of all vessels and 70% of PWC involved in accidents were operated by someone other than the registered owner.  These findings demonstrate the need to emphasize boating education for all vessel operators, not only vessel owners.

•  Accidents occurred mostly during the summer months (May through September), on weekends, and during the hours between 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.  The largest number of accidents (51%) occurred on lakes, followed by ocean/bay waters (29%).

•  18% of boating accidents and nearly one quarter of all injuries occurred during the summer holiday periods of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.

•  35% of reported accidents resulted from collisions with other vessels.

•  Operator inattention (40%) was the most common cause of boating accidents, followed by operator inexperience (33%), and excessive speed (25%).  (Many accidents had more than one cause.)

•  Open motorboats were involved in 51% of all accidents.  PWC were involved in 27%.

•  70% of vessels involved in all accidents were less than 26 feet in length.  89% of vessels involved in fatal boating accidents were also less than 26 feet in length.

•  Of operators whose ages were known, those in the 31-40 age group were involved in more accidents than any other age group, followed very closely by the 21-30 and 41-50 age groups.

PWC Accident Statistics

•  Accounting for 19% of registered vessels, PWC were involved in 27% of all accidents, 40% of all injuries, 20% of all fatalities, and 13% of all property damage.

•  Fatal accidents involving PWC increased from seven in 2002 to 12 in 2003, the highest number on record, although the overall number of PWC accidents continued to remain significantly lower than years prior to 1998.

•  In January 1998, two laws impacting PWC operators took effect.  The first law raised the minimum age to operate a vessel over 15 horsepower from 12 to 16 years of age.  Since the PWC is the vessel of choice for the vast majority of youth operators, we believe that this law has decreased the number of PWC-related accidents.  A second law, prohibiting activities such as wake jumping within 100 feet of another vessel, spraying down other vessels, and playing “chicken” with another vessel, has also had a positive impact on PWC-related accidents.

•  Accidents involving PWC have decreased 33% since January 1998.  Trends contributing to this result:

–  Accidents involving youths operating all types of vessels have decreased 31%.

–  PWC accidents involving radical maneuvers (such as wake jumping, donuts, and spraying other vessels) have decreased 28%.

Since changes in law noted above, and the resulting continued decrease of PWC-related accidents, the number of PWC accidents per hours under way has been approaching the rate for traditional vessels, and in 2003, was nearly equal to them.  The 2003 data revealed that:

•  When controlled for hours under way, there would have been one accident for every 698 traditional vessels operating on  California waterways, compared to one accident for every 705 PWC.

•  66% of PWC-related accidents and 50% of PWC-related fatalities resulted from collisions with other vessels.

•  In PWC collisions with another vessel, the other vessel was most often another PWC (64%).

•  53% of all PWC-related collisions involved operators who knew each other and were boating together.

•  The most common cause of PWC-related accidents involved operator inexperience (66%), operator inattention (63%), and excessive speed (57%).  (Many accidents had more than one cause.)

•  35% of PWC operators were age 11-20 and were involved in more accidents than any other age group, followed by the 21-30 age group.

•  70% of PWC involved in accidents were operated by someone other than the registered owner (53% were borrowed and 17% were rented).

Students learning to wakeboardYouth Accident Statistics
(Youth is under 18 years of age)

•  Since January 1998, when the minimum age for solo operation of a vessel over 15 HP was raised from 12 to 16 years of age, the number of accidents involving youth operators has decreased 34%, from 120 in 1997 to 83 in 2003.

•  During the 2003 boating season, a total of 98 youth operators were involved in 9% of all accidents, 14% of all injuries, and 13% of fatalities.

•  Operator inexperience was a factor in 81% of accidents involving youth operators and was the most common cause of accidents involving them.  Operator inexperience was a factor in only 33% of accidents involving operators of all ages.

•  26 operators involved in accidents (26%) were under the age of 16.  Four of those operators were under the age of 12.

•  Of the 26 operators under 16 years of age, 54% did not have an adult on board.

•  Collisions with other vessels accounted for 75% of accidents involving youth operators.

•  Most of the collisions involved youth operators colliding with adult operators.

•  In collisions between youth and adult operators, youth operators were somewhat more likely to be exclusively at fault.

•  89% of youth operators involved in accidents were operating a PWC.

Fatal Accident Statistics

•  Of the 61 fatalities in 2003, 66% occurred between May and September.  46% of all fatalities occurred on weekends.

•  61% of all fatalities drowned.  Of that group, 68% were not wearing a life jacket.

•  31% of fatalities in 2003 were fishing-related.  58% of those victims were boating in the off-season of October through April.

•  Of all fishing-related fatalities, 89% were the result of vessels capsizing or falls overboard.  89% drowned and only one victim was wearing a life jacket.

•  One-third (33%) of the vessels involved in fatal accidents were open motorboats, followed by PWC (27%).

•  The majority (89%) of vessels involved in fatal accidents were less than 26 feet in length.

•  Vessels capsizing (30%) and falls overboard (23%) were the most common types of fatal accidents.

•  The most common causes of fatalities were operator inattention (36%), operator inexperience (31%) hazardous weather/water conditions (25%) and excessive speed (18%)  (Many accidents had more than one cause.)

•  Operators in the 41-50 age group were involved in more fatal boating accidents than any other age group.

•  46% of fatalities occurred on lakes, 26% occurred on oceans/bays, 20% on rivers throughout the state, 5% on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, and 3% on the Colorado River.

•  19% of boating fatalities were found to be alcohol-related, where testing could be conducted.

Exhibit E-2
Services Supported by the 2002/2003 Financial Aid Program

Regulation Enforcement

Verbal Warnings






Physical Arrests



Boater Assistance

Persons Assisted



Vessels Assisted



Accident Investigations



Search and Rescue Operations




Body Recovery Attempts




Boating Safety Presentations




Organized Boating Event Supervision



Exhibit E-3
2003 California Boating Safety Education Programs

Education Programs

AquaSMART Elementary Education Program

500,000 participating students


AquaSMART Boating High School Education Program

20,000 participating students


Home Study Course (General Public)

40,000 courses distributed


Poster Contest (10th Annual)

2,797 entries


Aquatic Center Grant Program

Grants to universities and non-profit organizations for scholarships for the purchase of  boats, equipment, and related safety supplies

120,000 individuals trained


Public Outreach Programs

In 2003, Department representatives:

•  Attended numerous events, such as boat shows and safety fairs to distribute boating safety literature and answer questions from the public.

•  Continued the Boating Safety Awareness outdoor media campaign, focusing on areas with the greatest number of accidents.  This campaign consisted of 50 stationary billboards, 10 mobile billboards, and nearly 500 wall graphics (all-weather framed posters posted at launching ramps, fuel docks, and park entrances).  The billboards are designed to resemble “road signs” for the waterways.  Mobile billboards traveled to high-accident waterways throughout the summer, particularly on major holiday weekends.

•  Continued to place special emphasis on educating anglers by placing articles and messages in fishing publications throughout the state.

•  Distributed 1.2 million copies of boating safety literature.

Abandoned Watercraft Removal Program

•  The Department administers a program for the removal of abandoned watercraft and substantial navigational hazards from California’s waterways. The Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund (AWAF) program grants funds to local public agencies for the removal, storage, and disposal of these navigational hazards.  In 2003, a total of $438,000 was allocated to nine public agencies for the removal and disposal of abandoned vessels and other substantial hazards to navigation.

Exhibit E-4
2003 California Boating Safety Program Enhancements

Life Jacket Use

•  The Department continues the Life Jacket Loan Program aimed at increasing the use of life jackets by children.  In cooperation with fire stations in the Greater Sacramento area, an individual or family can check out life jackets for a day or a weekend simply by completing a loan form.

•  The Department continues the T-Shirt Program, aimed at increasing the use of life jackets by children.  Marine enforcement units, U.S. Coast Guard Stations, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotillas and U.S. Power Squadrons are supplied with T-shirts for children.  The shirts are used to reward children under the age of 13 found wearing their life jacket while boating.  This popular program recognizes safe behavior and reinforces continued use of life jackets by this target group.

•  The Department continues placing billboards reminding boaters to wear their life jackets in areas where accidents are most prevalent, along with placing safety messages on posters and refuse barrels at marinas.  The billboards and posters look like waterway “road signs” with messages of overall boating safety.  The Department continues promoting the use of life jackets at safety fairs and boat shows throughout the state, through the annual Safe & Wise Water Ways poster contest for children, and at National Safe Boating Week events.

•  In 2003, the Department partnered with Infinity Broadcasting, Nor Cal Water, and AM/PM Mini Marts to remind their collective clients in Northern California to “Get Hooked on H2O” and “Boat Smart from the Start…Wear Your Life Jacket.”  An estimated 12 million impressions were made on clients as the messages traveled the airwaves and were viewed at purchase points.

Personal Watercraft

Personal watercraft training class•  The Department provides a short course on PWC operation and safe boat handling.  The course is intended for PWC operators of all ages and is available to the general public.  It is designed so that it can easily be incorporated into existing safety programs offered by organizations such as the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the U.S. Power Squadrons, marine law enforcement agencies, and aquatic centers.  There is a 20-question exam at the end of the booklet to self-test on the material covered.  This basic course does not earn a certificate, but is simply a tool to introduce new PWC operators to laws, requirements, and important safety issues associated with their vessels.  This short course is now available online and those who complete the quiz online are rewarded with access to boating-themed screensavers.

•  The promotion of safe operation of PWC is a component of the Department’s outdoor media campaign.

•  The Department offers a 32-hour P.O.S.T.-certified PWC handling course specifically for law enforcement.

Youth Operator Safety

•  The Department distributes the AquaSMART Boating program for high school students throughout California.  This course incorporates lessons on key safety concerns identified by accident statistics.  Four types of boating are addressed: personal watercraft, powerboating, sailing, and paddling.  The course is available to schools, aquatic centers, and youth organizations.


•  The Department notifies law enforcement agencies statewide about alcohol-related fatalities and encourages them to strengthen their educational and enforcement efforts in this area.  The Department reinforces this message at all of its law enforcement training classes.

•  The curriculum for all AquaSMART youth programs includes information on the dangers of alcohol and drug use, especially when boating.  Zero tolerance is emphasized for all persons engaged in aquatic recreation.

•  The Department’s “Get H2Ooked on Sober Boating” T-Shirt promotion continued at boat shows and other outreach venues throughout the state.

Carbon Monoxide Education

•  In 2003, the Department produced a brochure to educate boaters of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning which also includes a warning sticker for a boat’s transom.  The brochure is distributed at boat shows, safety fairs, and other events and is also available on the Department’s Website.

•  The Department is producing both a TV and a radio PSA to increase awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning.

•  The Department is improving the collection of carbon monoxide boating accident data by increasing training to law enforcement officers who investigate accidents.

Other Safety Enhancements

•  In 2003, the Department sponsored 80 AquaSMART Live performances.  Praised by educators, the traveling puppet show is hosted by Splasher the Frog, mascot of the AquaSMART program.  AquaSMART Live has two programs for grades K-3 and 4-6.  The K-3 program uses stunt dummies to demonstrate to children what can happen when you do not play safe in and around the water.  The 4-6 program is a game show format where two teams compete for prizes while learning how to stay safe in and around the water.

•  The Department has produced a water skiing safety video to cover not only traditional water skiing activities, but also to include wakeboarding, kneeboarding, inner tubing, and other related activities.  This video is currently used in boating safety education classes offered by aquatic centers in California.

•  In 2003, the Marine Law Enforcement – Training Program continued its mission of providing quality training for peace officers who work California’s waterways.  Some significant changes to the program were:

1.  Finalizing the draft for the new vessel accident report manual.

2.  Finalizing the draft for the new Boating Intoxication Enforcement vessel stop film.

3.  Upgrading training materials to its Basic Boating Safety and Enforcement class.

4.  Standardizing its pilot Personal Watercraft class.

•  The Department produced a two new PSAs, to add to its “The Safety Pirate” radio series for distribution through the National Safe Boating Council.  This award-winning radio message was aired throughout the nation in 2003 and was also used in England and Australia.

•  In 2003, KCRA/KQCA, the NBC affiliate in Sacramento, partnered with the Department to produce a new 30-second PSA for television promoting safe boating and taking a boating safety course in its viewing area in Northern California.

•  The Department is finishing work on a brochure that promotes hands-on boating safety courses and contains information on classes offered by aquatic centers have partnered with the Department.  This brochure will be completed in Summer of 2004.