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How distracted driving works on the water -- and why it is still dangerous

The smartphone age has brought new scrutiny to the problem of distracted driving, and the widespread occurrence of this dangerous practice has become a major traffic safety policy concern - so much so that most American drivers are now aware of the problem.

This has led to better public education about the three types of distraction (visual, manual, and cognitive) as well as the ways that devices like smartphones complicate driver distraction by providing diverting engagement along all three avenues. What many drivers are less aware of is the way that this same trend has impacted boating.

Accidents from "inattention"

In July 2016, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators outlined basic facts about the degree to which distracted boating impacts the maritime industries:

  • "Operator inattention" and "improper lookout" constitute 22 to 24 percent of all boating accidents for the last five years of their data.
  • These categories encompass the range of activities that could be considered distracted boating, including operating a smartphone or personal assistant while operating a vessel.
  • Compared against the total of lethal accidents, this puts these incidents between 9 and 14 percent of the total annual boating fatalities, depending on the data year.
  • This also places distracted boating as one of the top five causes of accidents for all of the years the report covered.

While the 2016 report covered only the previous five years, a USA Today report from 2010 outlining the National Traffic Safety Board's adoption of a recommendation to the maritime industry about regulating distracted boating points to the long-term nature of the problem. In that report, the Coast Guard confirmed that one in five accidents from the previous year were the result of distracted boating.

What you can do to protect yourself

The same basic advice that applies on the road applies on a boat: If you are operating the vehicle, you need to be as distraction-free as possible. That can be difficult when you are also using the boat for a recreational activity like skiing or tubing, which is why you also need to have people who can help you be safe on the water. Put away distracting technology and let others worry about things like taking pictures or video.

Last but not least, remember that no one can control everything, and have a plan for any contingency. That means being ready to consult with an accident attorney whose experience covers recreational boating injuries. That way, you may be able to recover the costs of your medical expenses, lost wages, and other consequences of the accident.

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