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"Top 10 Causes of Accidents on Arizona Waters," by Ryan Babel

This article was published in the May-June 2008 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. Support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine — order online.

Watercraft season is here ... so get your boat out of storage or the shop, check your safety equipment and make sure your plug is in. Arizona offers some of the most beautiful lakes and rivers around, and a day on the water is one of the best ways to escape the summer heat.

But all fun and play can make for a dangerous day on the water if you don’t keep safety in mind.

Consider this: Of all the states and U.S. territories, Arizona averages fifth in the total number of accidents on the water and seventh for total number of injuries. These sobering statistics should be reason enough to learn how to reduce your odds of getting into an accident.

Avoid being a statistic this year: Know the top 10 causes of accidents on Arizona waters.

#1 Operator Inexperience

Operator inexperience is the leading cause of boat accidents in Arizona and nationwide, and has been for 15 years. Because of this, the Arizona Game and Fish Department recommends taking a boating education class, though it is not required for operating a watercraft in the state of Arizona. More than 1,000 people take the department’s course every year. The course is now offered online ( The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadrons also provide approved classes.

Boating laws and regulations, navigation rules, knot tying, trailering and what to do in a weather-related emergency are topics covered in the course. Taking the course may allow you to legally operate your watercraft in a state that requires boaters to complete boating education. As an added bonus, most insurance companies offer boat owners a discount if they complete a boating education class. The class provides the knowledge needed to have a safe, enjoyable time on the water, and may reduce your odds of getting into an accident.

Though it’s not a substitute for a boating safety class, the department publishes “The Boater’s Guide of Arizona,” a booklet that provides an overview of Arizona boating laws. It is available at any Game and Fish Department office, many watercraft dealerships and from most officers on Arizona waterways.

Boat owners aren’t the only ones who need to learn how to boat safely. If you don’t own a watercraft, rental opportunities abound. Choices range from taking a houseboat out for a week on Lake Powell to renting a personal watercraft for an hour on the Colorado River. When you rent, make sure the rental company explains the watercraft’s controls and safety equipment to you. And don’t rent a watercraft if you don’t know the laws and navigational rules of the water.

#2 Operator Inattention

A lot of things on the water compete for one’s attention. But don’t let the dream of landing that next big largemouth bass or the possibility of making friends with the boat full of beautiful people next to you become a distraction — pay attention to what matters. Remember, boats do not have brakes. Water adds an element of unpredictability when you need to react quickly. Operator inattention has been the No. 2 cause of boat accidents for the past 15 years.

#3 Passenger/Skier Behavior

The operator of the watercraft is responsible for all passengers. Keep them seated while underway, and don’t let them obstruct your view. If your passengers’ inappropriate actions get you pulled over, you still get the ticket. That can make the rest of the day a little uncomfortable for everyone aboard. And don’t tow a skier who wants to ride in a reckless manner. This can get you both in trouble and cause accidents. When pulling a skier, a designated observer must be in the boat. You also must display a 12-inch by 12-inch red or orange flag while a skier is in the water.

#4 Weather

People flock to Arizona for famously dependable blue skies and sunshine, but even here Mother Nature has moments of unpredictability. When she does, remember never to boat beyond your own abilities or those of your watercraft. Before you go, check your safety equipment, listen to the forecast and create a float plan that details where and when you will be boating. Keep in mind that high winds can make waters very treacherous.

#5 Equipment Failure

Like it or not, regular maintenance is part of owning a watercraft. Your boat is an investment worth protecting, so stay away from taking shortcuts that may cost you more in the long run. Proper maintenance also helps protect you from carbon monoxide poisoning (see “Carbon Monoxide, A Silent Killer,” below ). If there is a chance you’ll still be out after the sun goes down, check that your navigational lights work before leaving the dock or slip.

#6 Reckless Operation

The following activities are considered reckless and should be avoided: allowing a passenger to ride on the bow, transom or gunwales of your watercraft while it is underway; intentionally splashing other watercraft; jumping a wake in the vicinity of another watercraft while on a personal watercraft. Take a moment to observe how boaters around you are operating their vessels. If you’re not in the norm, you may be operating recklessly or negligently. At all times, a wise boater maintains a safe reaction interval from other boaters.

#7 Failure to Yield

Whether operators do not understand navigational rules, or just let their egos collide (moments before their boats do), failure to yield causes crashes. Taking a boating education class and being alert while on the water can lower your chances of run-ins with other boats. All boaters need to know the meaning and implication of “stand on” and “give way.”

#8 (Tie) Congested Waters and Hazardous Waters

Congested?Waters Arizona isn’t getting any more water, and there are about 150,000 registered watercraft in the state (not including boaters from California and Nevada along the Colorado River or guests from other states). If your schedule allows, boat during the week. It shouldn’t be a surprise that most accidents occur on Saturdays and Sundays. Be extra-diligent on busy holiday weekends, such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. And don’t forget about spring break, which typically takes place during the month of March. The numerous colleges and universities taking breaks at different times can make most of the month noticeably busier.

Hazardous?Waters Sections of water with strong currents and turbid areas constitute hazardous waters. Operators of smaller watercraft, such as rafts or canoes, along the Colorado River are often attracted to these waters by the excitement and risk, underestimating the hazards. Consider a guided tour by a professional if you don’t have the experience.

#9 (Tie) Excessive Speed and Alcohol Use

Excessive?Speed Boats are bigger and faster than ever. Just because your watercraft can go 70-plus mph doesn’t mean it should be operated that fast. Slowing down increases your odds of seeing people and objects in the water, sandbars and other hazards. It also increases your general awareness of what’s going on around you. Many waters provide great wildlife viewing opportunities, but only if you slow down to appreciate them.

Alcohol?Use When it comes to alcohol consumption, an operator on the water must obey the same laws as a driver behind the wheel of a car on the roadway. You cannot be impaired to the slightest degree or have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeding 0.08. That means if you can feel the effects of alcohol at all and choose to operate, you’re breaking the law and endangering the lives of your passengers and fellow boaters. If you’ve had too many, designate another operator. Alcohol may not be the No. 1 cause of accidents, but it was involved in 50 percent of all fatalities on the water in Arizona last year.

#10 Overloading

Check the manufacturer’s capacity plate for the maximum weight or number of individuals your vessel can safely carry on board. Disregarding this requirement can have serious secondary consequences. Having more people on board during an accident can lead to more injuries or deaths, putting pressure on limited rescue and law enforcement resources. It can
turn an accident scene into a triage situation. In my experience, it is rare that
there are enough lifejackets aboard overcrowded vessels.

There you have it — a top 10 list even David Letterman wouldn’t find funny. Keep in mind that most accidents are caused by a combination of the factors listed, and addressing one while ignoring others isn’t enough. But now that you’re aware of the causes, you’re that much closer to enjoying a safe, accident-free watercraft season. 

Carbon Monoxide, A Silent Killer

Another danger that has recently received national attention is carbon monoxide poisoning. As a result of several tragic deaths linked to this colorless, odorless and tasteless gas, a great deal of research has been initiated into this silent killer, much of it taking place in Arizona.

To avoid the dangers of carbon monoxide, don’t operate your boat with passengers in close proximity to engine and generator exhausts, particularly on days with little or no wind.

Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include nausea, headache, dizziness and irritated eyes. Don’t risk confusing carbon monoxide poisoning with motion sickness or intoxication from alcohol — get an affected individual away from any running engines or generators and into fresh air as quickly as possible.

This article was published in the May-June 2008 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

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