2006 California Boating Safety Report
California Division of Boating and Waterways

Section 2: Boating Accident Program

This section summarizes 2006 boating accident statistics. The California Division of Boating and Waterways, law enforcement agencies, the United States Coast Guard, educational institutions, and California boaters use these statistics to help improve boating safety.

A.Limitations of the Analysis

Reportable Accidents

The statistics in this report reflect every reported boating accident in California in 2006. Although DBW believes that all accidents involving fatalities were reported, many non-fatal accidents are never reported to DBW 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.

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 research from other sources (e.g., newsclippings). To improve the accuracy of accident statistics, DBW has increased its efforts to obtain all accident reports by working closely with law enforcement agencies.

Accident Statistics

A total of 757 accidents were reported to DBW in 2006. 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 875 operators and 1,128 vessels were involved in boating accidents in 2006. Many statistics presented in this report are measured as a percentage of the number of operators or vessels involved or the number of causes—rather than the 757 accidents—in order to provide more accurate comparisons.

Alcohol Use

Analysis of alcohol-related accidents can be complicated 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 are reluctant to report themselves as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.) Unfortunately, these delays can result in the loss of accurate data 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. 26% of boating fatalities in 2006 could not be tested for alcohol for the above reasons.

B. Findings

The 757 accidents reported to DBW during 2006 involved 445 injuries, 42 fatalities, and nearly $9 million in property damage. The number of accidents and fatalities were lower than 2005 totals (800 accidents and 58 fatalities). Injury and property damage totals exceeded 2005 totals (428 injuries and $3.5 million). The amount of property damage was significantly higher than totals from previous years. This was due to several accidents involving boat fires in which significant damage was incurred.

Exhibit II-1 presents boating accident statistics in California from 1980 through 2006.

Exhibit II-2 presents 2006 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 (40%). Open motorboats and personal watercraft were the most common types of vessels involved in accidents and were involved in 48% and 24% of accidents, respectively. The most common type of accident involving open motorboats was collision with another vessel (32%), followed by accidents involving skier mishaps (19%). Most accidents involving PWC were collisions with other vessels (72%), followed by falls overboard (13%).

The most frequently stated causes of accidents overall were operator inattention (43%) operator inexperience (27%), and excessive speed (23%). (A boating accident can have more than one attributable cause.)

The leading causes of accidents involving both open motorboats and PWC were operator inattention and operator inexperience. This is a change from previous years in which operator inexperience had been the leading cause of PWC accidents.

Time and Location

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

Of the 757 boating accidents, 136 (18%) occurred during the three holiday periods of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. During these periods, 91 injuries (20%) and 3 fatalities (7%) also occurred.

Exhibit II-4 presents 2006 accidents, injuries, and fatalities by location. Overall, most accidents and injuries occurred on lakes, 44% and 46% respectively, and more occurred on northern lakes. These percentages have decreased from 49% and 54% in 2005.

Vessel Type and Length

In 2006, open motorboats accounted for approximately 50% 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 24% of all accidents. 63% of vessels involved in all accidents and 70% of vessels involved in fatal accidents were less than 26 feet in length.

Exhibit II-5 presents registration and accident statistics for open motorboats, PWC, and other vessels during 2006.

Operator Age

Overall, operators in the 21-30 and 41-50 age groups were involved in accidents more often than those in any other age group, followed closely by operators in 31-40 age group. The 41-50 age group was involved most often in open motorboat-related accidents, followed by the 21-30 and 31-40 age groups. The 11-20 age group was involved most often in PWC-related accidents, followed by the 21-30 age group.

Operator Owner Status

32% of all vessels involved in accidents were operated by the registered owner. About 41% of vessels were operated by someone other than the registered owner (30% were borrowed and 11% were rented).

Representative Accidents

  • The operator was towing a tuber and made a turn too close to shore, swinging the tube toward the rocks. The tuber attempted to jump off the tube but was unable to avoid striking the rocks. He sustained multiple fractures.
  • An open motorboat and a PWC were traveling in the same direction. The PWC operator began operating in a zig-zag pattern and made a sharp turn into the path of the motorboat. There was not enough reaction time for the open motorboat operator to avoid a collision and he struck and killed the PWC operator.
  • An intoxicated passenger aboard an open motorboat was seated in the bow and leaned over the side of the vessel and fell overboard and drowned.
  • The operator of a sailboat had just taken down his sails and was operating under power through an anchorage. His view was partially blocked by the boom and he struck an anchored sailboat, causing it to de-mast.
  • An inexperienced kayaker paddled too far off shore on a large lake and grew fatigued and cold and could not get back to shore. She was able to dial 911 on her cell phone and was rescued and transported to the hospital for treatment due to hypothermia.

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 in the conventional manner of sitting or standing inside the vessel.

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

As of December 31, 2006, there were 162,333 PWC registered in California, comprising 18% of registered vessels. Exhibit II-6 shows the total number of PWC registered in California from 1993 through 2006.


A total of 180 PWC-related accidents were reported in 2006, resulting in 145 injuries, 5 fatalities, and $389,475 in property damage. These totals were lower than 2005 levels (203, 155, 7, and $467,250, respectively).

Exhibit II-7 presents a 14-year summary for PWC accidents, injuries, fatalities, and property damage.

Exhibit II-8 presents 2006 reported PWC-related accidents by county.

PWC were involved in 24% of accidents, 33% of injuries, 12% of fatalities, and 4% of property damage.

Accidents involving PWC continue to remain significantly lower than the 1997 totals of 391 accidents, a decrease of 54%. The 180 reported PWC-related accidents is the lowest number of accidents recorded since 1991.

For a number of years, PWC-related accidents have been on a downward trend. This long-standing decrease appears to be attributable mainly to two 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 the section Accidents Involving Youths.

PWC accidents involving radical maneuvers such as wake jumping, donuts, and spraying other vessels fell from 88 in 1997 to 46 in 2006, a decrease of 48%.

Accidents involving youth operators fell from 120 in 1997 to 55 in 2006, a decrease of 54%.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Overall Accidents

Most reported PWC accidents involved collisions with other vessels (72%). 13% of accidents involved falls overboard. Vessels grounding accounted for 4% of accidents.

An examination of the 129 collisions involving PWC reveals that 78 (60%) involved a PWC colliding with a second PWC.

The most common causes of all PWC accidents were operator inexperience (64%), operator inattention (53%), and excessive speed (50%). (Some accidents have more than one attributable cause.) All of these causes are operator-controllable factors. The percentage of accidents involving operator inexperience decreased from 64% in 2005.

Operator Age

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

Operator Owner Status

79% of PWC involved in accidents were operated by someone other than the registered owner (54% were borrowed and 25% were rented).

Boater Use Study

Several years ago, DBW noted the disproportionately high number of PWC-related accidents when compared to their registered numbers. 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 conventional boats, would the accident rate still be disproportionate? To answer this concern, DBW funded a study that was conducted by California State University Sacramento to survey boat owners to determine the amount of time boats were under way.

The study, conducted in 1995 and 1996, found that, for every day on the water, PWC spent 5.2 hours underway, while conventional vessels only spent 3.6 hours under way. However, when controlled for hours under way (that is, if conventional 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 conventional boats for that time period.

Since changes in law noted earlier in this chapter, the number of PWC-related accidents has decreased substantially in the last eight years. In 2006, traditional vessels were involved in more accidents than PWC. The 2006 data show that when controlled for hours under way, there would have been one accident for every 800 traditional vessels operating on California waterways, compared to one accident for every 901 PWC.

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.
  • Although rare, lanyards sometimes present difficulties for operators. In one case, the operator fell overboard and was injured, rendering him unable to swim back to the craft. Since the lanyard was on his wrist, the passenger was unable to maneuver the craft to retrieve him. In other cases, lanyards became detached and could not be reattached quickly enough to avoid grounding or colliding with another vessel. These situations are rare, but noteworthy.

D. Accidents Involving Water Skiing

In this report, the term “water skiing” refers to all activities involving a vessel towing a person on a towline.

In recent years, the sport of water skiing has evolved beyond traditional water skiing and now encompasses the towing of inner tubes, wakeboards, kneeboards, wake skates, wake surfers, and air chairs.


In 2006, a total of 91 accidents involving water skiing activities were reported to DBW, resulting in 87 injuries and 2 fatalities. The accidents accounted for 12% of all accidents, 20% of injuries, and 5% of fatalities. Water skiing accidents decreased 15% compared with 2005 totals. Total accidents involving water skiing have been declining since 2003 in which there were 161 accidents.

Accidents involving traditional water skiing only accounted for 14% of all water skiing accidents. Accidents involving wakeboards accounted for 45% of water skiing accidents, followed by innertubes (38%). 2006 marked the sixth year that accidents involving wakeboards exceeded accidents involving traditional water skiing.

Time and Location

93% of water skiing accidents occurred between May and September. 78% of water skiing-related accidents occurred in Northern California and 22% in Southern California. The most popular bodies of water were lakes (86%), followed by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (7%) and the southern coast (4%) and the Colorado River (3%).

Vessel Type and Length

Of the vessels involved in water skiing accidents, (93%) were open motorboats, followed by PWC (5%).

Type and Cause of Accidents

Exhibit II-9 provides a breakdown of the 2006 reported water skiing activities by situation.

Water skiing accidents, in which the skier was responsible for the accident, accounted for 60% of the accidents. These accidents most often involved inexperienced skiers, who were injured while attempting to stand up or who attempted maneuvers beyond their experience level.

36% of accidents involved a variety of unsafe behaviors, both by operators towing skiers and also by other vessels operating in the vicinity of vessels towing skiers. A number of accidents involved inappropriate handling of ski lines by operators and skiers. Consistent with other years, the most common situations involved:

  • Vessels not keeping appropriate distances from drifting vessels involved in assisting fallen skiers, thereby running over ski lines.
  • Operators commencing operation of vessels while ski lines are still in the water, causing the lines to become entangled in the propellers.
  • Operating too close to the shoreline while towing tubes, not realizing that the tubers cannot maneuver the tubes and causing them to strike the shoreline.
  • Operators towing tubes in donuts to provide the tubers with more exciting rides, but instead, running over the ski lines and pulling the tubes into the propellers.
  • Operators failing to notice that other vessels are towing skiers, causing collisions with skiers.
  • Operators looking over their shoulders, watching skiers instead of relying on the observers, resulting in collisions with other vessels or the shoreline.
  • Operators failing to secure tubes, resulting in their blowing overboard, tangling people in lines or wakeboards so that they fall off racks and injure people.

E. 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 2006 boating season, youth operators were involved in 7% of all accidents, 12% of injuries, and 5% of fatalities.

Exhibit II-10 presents a 14-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 operator age limit increase took effect in January 1998, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of accidents involving operators under 16 years of age. The total number of accidents involving all youth operators is 54% lower than the number reported in 1997.

Of the 63 youth operators involved in accidents, 27 (43%) were under the age of 16, and 3 were under the age of 12. Of the operators younger than 16 years of age, 63% were operating illegally by either not having an adult on board, or, when the operator was younger than 12, operating the vessel under any circumstance. The percentage of underage operators operating illegally has decreased from 67% in 2005.

Type and Cause of Accidents

Collisions (75%) were the primary type of accident involving youth operators, followed by falls overboard (11%) and grounding (7%).

The most common cause of accidents involving youth operators was operator inexperience (65%). Operator inexperience was a factor in only 27% of accidents involving operators of all ages. Excessive speed and operator inattention were the second most common causes; each was a factor in 60% of accidents.

Vessel Type

The vast majority (90%) of youth operators involved in accidents were operating PWC. An additional 5% were operating open motorboats.

Additional Safety Concerns

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.

Additionally, in a previous year, a lanyard was left attached on a drifting, unoccupied PWC. A small child playing in the area climbed aboard, pressed the start button and shot across the water, striking a swimmer, who later died of serious head injuries.

F. Fatal Boating Accidents


In 2006, 42 fatalities occurred on California waterways. This represents 4.7 fatalities per 100,000 registered vessels. The number of fatalities decreased from 58 in 2005 (6 per 100,000 registered vessels).

Type and Cause of Accidents

The most common type of fatal accident involved falls overboard (43%), vessels capsizing (26%), grounding (12%) and collisions with fixed objects (12%). Hazardous water conditions (26%), operator inattention (24%) and operator inexperience (21%) were the primary causes of fatalities. 74% of the victims drowned. Of that group, 71% were not wearing a life jacket.

Time and Location

The largest number of fatalities occurred in June. 38% of fatalities occurred during the off-season of October through April. 57% of fatalities occurred on a Saturday or Sunday, 40% of fatalities occurred on lakes, 29% occurred on oceans/bays, 5% occurred on the Colorado River, 14% on other rivers throughout the State, and 12% occurred in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region. 69% of fatalities occurred in Northern California compared with 31% in Southern California.

Vessel Type and Length

39% of the vessels involved in fatal accidents were open motorboats, followed by paddle craft (18%), PWC (14%), sailboats (9%) and cabin motorboats (9%). Even though PWC were involved in 24% of all accidents, they were not involved in as many fatalities. PWC operators are more likely to wear life jackets, which may explain the lower fatality rate.

The majority of vessels involved in fatal accidents were less than 26 feet in length (70%).

Victim Activity

Exhibit II-11 presents boating fatalities by type of activity and life jacket usage.

Fishing-Related Fatalities

Fishing-related fatalities accounted for 16 (38%) of boating fatalities in 2006. Fifteen victims drowned and one other died of trauma-related injuries. Of those victims who drowned, 93% were not wearing a life jacket.

The majority (63%) of victims of fishing-related accidents were boating in Northern California. The most common locations were coastal areas followed by lakes, and the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.

The majority of the fishing-related fatalities occurred as a result of vessels capsizing (56%) or victims falling overboard (25%). Alcohol was a factor in 50% of fishing fatalities.

Paddle Sport Fatalities

Six victims died while engaged in paddle sport activities in 2006. Five victims died on rivers during whitewater or swift-water boating activities and one died while in ocean waters.

83% of the fatalities were the result of hazardous water conditions. Operator inexperience was an additional factor in 67% of the fatalities.

Four of the fatalities were the result of victims falling overboard and two were the result of vessels capsizing. All of the victims drowned. Five of the six were wearing their life jackets. Strong currents pulled them beneath the surface of the water despite their jackets being worn.

G. Alcohol Use and Fatal Boating Accidents


In 1987, state law made it illegal to operate a recreational vessel with a blood alcohol level of 0.10% or more. 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.

For the purpose of this analysis, only fatal boating accidents were analyzed for alcohol relatedness. 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 judgment and operational competency occur.

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


Of the 42 fatalities, blood alcohol information was available in 31 of the cases. Of these 31 cases, 15 victims or operators (48%) had blood alcohol levels equal to or greater than 0.035%.

Type and Cause of Accidents

The majority of alcohol-related boating fatalities were the result of vessels grounding (27%), or vessels capsizing (20%). Operator inattention (27%), unsafe behavior by passengers or skiers (20%) and excessive speed (13%) were the leading causes of accidents. (Some accidents had more than one cause.) 87% of the victims drowned. Of this group, 92% were not wearing a life jacket.

Type of Vessel

A total of 15 vessels were involved in these accidents, all of which were motorized. The two most common types of vessels involved were open motorboats (60%) and cabin motorboats (20%). 80% of all vessels involved were less than 26 feet in length.

Time and Location

Of the 15 alcohol-related fatalities, 67% occurred on weekends. 67% occurred in Northern California and 33% in Southern California.


53% of alcohol-realted fatalities took place during fishing activities. 33% took place during general recreation activities, one during sailing activities, and one during water skiing activities.

Profile of Intoxicated Boaters

An examination of the 15 alcohol-related fatalities reveals that seven were operators, seven were passengers, and one was a swimmer. As in previous years, several of the victims who were not operators contributed to their deaths due to their level of alcohol consumption.

These findings relating to intoxicated passengers or other occupants were consistent with findings from other years. Persons other than the operator who are under the influence often put themselves in dangerous positions in the boating environment, engaging in activities such as leaning over or sitting on gunwales or jumping from one vessel to another. Additionally, intoxicated passengers often stand in or move about in vessels, causing them to fall overboard, or the vessel to capsize, placing all aboard in danger. Persons also swim too close to propellers, causing danger to themselves.

These situations underscore DBW’s long-held view that a sober operator does not ensure passenger safety. Intoxicated persons in or around vessels are exposed to dangers that would not affect the safety of intoxicated passengers in a vehicle. The “designated driver” concept, which is popular in some boating safety literature, has its roots in automobile safety where the possibility of falling overboard and drowning (or swimming too close to the propeller) is not a factor. Therefore, based upon the findings of these fatalities and others from other years, DBW recommends that neither operators nor passengers drink alcoholic beverages while boating.

Alcohol-Related Fatalities Involving Motorized Vessels

In January 1986, DBW submitted the Boating Safety Report to the California Legislature. This report analyzed alcohol-related boating accidents between November 1, 1983, and October 31, 1985. The alcohol-relatedness of boating fatalities was examined. To do so, only those fatalities where alcohol testing was conducted were part of the analysis.

In the two-year study period, 127 people were killed in boating accidents, but information concerning blood alcohol was only available for 88 victims, as detailed in Exhibit II-12. The study found that alcohol was a factor in 52 (59%) of the 88 fatalities. Alcohol-related fatalities averaged 26 per year.

Since the time of the initial study, fatalities have continued to be analyzed for alcohol-relatedness. Findings for the years 1993-2006 are presented in Exhibit II-13.

Although the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities is nearly at the level found in the 1986 study, it should be noted that the overall number of fatalities in 2006 was significantly lower.