Common Boating Accident Causes & Prevention

boat sinking from an accident

Warm weather typically means breaking out the boats and having some fun in the sun, but this doesn’t mean that everyone is lucky enough to walk away scot-free from an afternoon of boating with loved ones. The rising popularity of such a pastime has led to several accidents over the past years. A canoe, ship, or any other water-bound vessel can get involved in an accident that may lead to transportation litigation. For example, in Illinois, small watercraft only make up roughly 4% of the watercraft in Illinois water. However, they make up at least 44% of all the accidents in the state.

Common Boating Accidents

What qualifies as a boating accident? Boating accidents include vessel loss, property damage, injuries, missing individuals, and even death.

As for common boating accidents, these can include:

  • A casualty while swimming to an undocked vessel
  • A casualty/injury occurring from colliding with a vessel or its components
  • An explosion or fire while docked or operating
  • Two vessels colliding
  • A mishap while towing (whether a wakeboard, waterski, etc.)
  • A passenger falling off a vessel
  • The vessel flooding or capsizing
  • An individual drowning

Yes, accidents happen, but many can be avoided by simple safety procedures and thinking ahead. For example, one of the leading boat-related casualties happens to be drowning. If simple PFD protocols had been followed and passengers were wearing life vests, these casualties could’ve been easily avoided. In addition to this, the law states that all vessels must have at least a single life vest (USCG approved) for every individual on board. In the event of a boating accident, the chances of survival are significantly higher when passengers have (and utilize) life vests while on board.

Main Causes of Fatal Boating Accidents and How to Avoid Them

More people are enjoying the recreational activities that our area has to offer than ever before, and as a result, boating accidents are also on the rise. Here are some of the main factors that can contribute to the worst-case scenario when it comes to an accident occurring and determining transportation liability on the water.

Operator Error

Whether there was negligence, inattention, or inexperience, the captain of the vessel (no matter the size) is responsible for the safety of those not only on their own boat but those in the water or on other craft as well. Many operators (especially those new to the sport) have the mistaken impression that operating a boat is easier than operating a vehicle and fail to take extra care or invest in the education and training necessary to operate it safely. Obstacles can be struck, other boaters and swimmers are placed in danger, and the proper respect for the weather may not be given when the operator is inexperienced.

Improper Lookout

This factor often coincides with Operator Error, as it’s the responsibility of the operator of the boat to either designate other look-outs while operating the boat or ensure that others are safe themselves. Improper lookout scenarios involve having swimmers or skiers in the water and not ensuring that they aren’t in danger of being struck and killed either by their own vessel or another and drowning. This also includes ensuring the boat is equipped with the proper flagging equipment, and that everyone on board knows how and when to use them.

Operator Intoxication

Operating a boat under the influence of alcohol or other substances is not only a serious safety violation but an illegal act that can lead to the injury or death of others while on the water. But it’s not just the operator of the boat that needs to respect and maintain sobriety; their passengers are more at risk of slipping, falling in, and drawing when under the influence as well. It’s imperative to prioritize sobriety for yourself as the operator and your passengers as well to avoid preventable injuries and deaths while you’re out enjoying the water this summer.


Much like when we are operating a motor vehicle on the road, speed kills. Our reaction times are decreased, and our ability to safely navigate obstacles, other boats, swimmers, and changes in the water's surface and surroundings are severely impacted when speeding. Failure to observe either the posted limits (or rules of navigation) while boating is one of the number one causes of accidents on the water and one that can easily be prevented by slowing down.

Mechanical Failure

Whether the result of manufacturer defect, operator negligence or something else, when a boat experiences mechanical failures, accidents can also lead to injury or death. The craft can suddenly stop, fail to turn, crash into an obstacle or other boat, sink, and even catch fire. Depending on the size of the body of water you are on, an inoperable boat can also leave you stranded for a potentially significant period. While not all mechanical failures can be prevented, some can easily be prevented with proper maintenance, manufacturing, and inspection.

Learn how an attorney can help 

Operating Responsibly

By simply operating a vessel responsibly, one can avoid so many scenarios that could lead to a boating tragedy. For example, there are many instances where an individual goes overboard due to drug/alcohol abuse, driving a boat irresponsibly, or another passenger being irresponsible. If the vessel’s driver understands how to operate the vessel responsibly, knows vessel law, and knows how to keep themselves and their passengers safe, most trauma and tragedy can be avoided.

Common causes of most boating accidents include:

  • A distracted boat driver
  • A driver that’s under the influence
  • Equipment malfunctions
  • Poor weather conditions
  • Inexperienced boat drivers
  • Driving at excessive speeds
  • Overloaded boats
  • Improper lookouts for hazards
  • Violations of navigational rules
  • Reckless driving

So to avoid accidents and minimize the chances of a boating tragedy, it’s important to take precautions seriously and be well aware of what you plan on doing. Understanding safety regulations and boating laws can be life-saving, whether you’re a seasoned boater or a novice boater. Many states offer boaters valuable resources and information so accidents can be avoided. Small details such as speed limits in no-wake zones, checking weather reports before boating, sharing safety tips with passengers, and making sure your vessel is suited to go out on the water are all helpful when it comes to being out on the water and help prevent you from having to call for help.

When a boating accident occurs, the party responsible can typically be held accountable for their negligence. A lawyer will know what laws were violated and what compensation can be acquired to cover your injuries. They can guide you through the complex legal proceedings and give you peace of mind knowing that you’re in good hands. If you (or someone you know) have been a victim of what should’ve been a fun day on the water in a boating accident, there’s still hope. Our team of attorneys is on hand to help you with any legal issues that require their professional assistance. 

Get a free case evaluation today