Fewer U.S. recreational boaters died on the water in 2017, but alcohol use remains the primary contributing behavior in recreational boating accidents, the Coast Guard stated in its recently released annual report on recreational boating.

The report, like most, relies heavily on statistics to frame recreational boating activity in 2017. But the data used to break down the numbers also helps define some behavioral trends and causes.

First the numbers:

The Coast Guard, according to the report, counted 4,291 recreational boating accidents in 2017 that killed 658, injured 2,629 and caused about $46 million in property damage.

The encouraging news? The 2017 numbers reflect a 3.9 percent decline in the number of marine recreational accidents from 2016 and a 6.1 drop in the number of deaths at a time when the number of registered recreational vessels increased by less than 1 percent to 11.96 million. The number of injuries also declined 9.4 percent.

So, fewer people dying or getting hurt in fewer incidents. All good there.

However, other statistics within the report are more unsettling and underline the need for boaters to adhere to some elemental safety standards — such as wearing a life jacket and receiving formal boating safety instruction.

Consider: Where the cause of death was known in 2017, 76 percent of victims in fatal boating accidents drowned and 84.5 percent of those were not wearing a life jacket. Also, 81 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had no formal safety training.

And then there’s impact of alcohol.

“Alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents,” the Coast Guard stated. “Where the primary cause was known, it was listed as the leading factor in 19 percent of deaths.”

Open motor boats were involved in the most incidents (46 percent), followed by personal watercraft such as jet skis (18 percent) and cabin motorboats (16 percent).

Open motor boats also were involved in the highest percentage of deaths (47 percent), followed by kayaks (15 percent) and personal watercraft (7 percent).

Now the trends and causes:

What were the most dangerous months onthe water in 2017?

By a wide margin, July was the most troublesome month, with 1,070 accidents and 114 fatal accidents causing 121 deaths. June had 654 accidents and 93 fatal accidents producing 104 deaths.

But the months with the highest percentage of fatal accidents were January and February, respectively, when 19 percent of all accidents produced a fatality.

What was the most dangerous time of day to be a recreational boater?

In those cases where the actual time of the incident was known, more fatal accidents occurred between 4:31 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. (about 24 percent) than any other time period. In 35 percent of fatal accidents, the time of the incident was unknown.

What was the safest time of day?

The safest time period was 2:31 to 4:30 p.m., which produced about 11 percent of accidents that included a death.

Beyond alcohol, what were the primary contributing elements of vessel operation in accidents and casualties?

No contest. Operator inattention was a primary element in 620 accidents, 45 deaths and 381 injuries, followed by operator inexperience with splits of 436 accidents/63 deaths/249 injuries.

Other primary operational contributing factors include overloading (39 accidents/19 deaths/17 injuries); machinery failure (305 accidents/9 deaths/80 injuries); weather (198 accidents/40 deaths/60 injuries); and hazardous waters (187 accidents/64 deaths/124 injuries).

What vessel activity produced the most recreationalboating deaths in 2017?

By far, it was boating and relaxation (358 deaths), followed by fishing (181 deaths).

What bodies of water were the venues for the most deaths and accidents?

Lakes, ponds, reservoirs, dams and gravel pits hosted 1,902 of the 4,291 accidents (44 percent) and accounted for 331 of the 658 deaths (50 percent) and 1,245 of the 2,629 injuries (47 percent).

What was the most prevalent water condition for accidents in 2017?

Interestingly, calm waters with waves less than 6 inches was the most common condition, accounting for 2,456 of the 4,291 accidents (57 percent), 324 of the 658 deaths (49 percent) and 1,550 of the 2,629 injuries (59 percent).

What was the most common wind conditions for accidents in 2017?

Interestingly again, the great majority of incidents — 2,393 of 4,291 accidents (56 percent) — occurred in light winds of no more than 6 mph, producing 355 of the 658 deaths (54 percent) and 1,544 of the 2,629 injuries (59 percent).

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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