Idiots and Their Boats

Chatterbox is grateful to the many people who wrote in to share personal stories and their views about methodological challenges as a way to help Chatterbox figure out whether vacations are more dangerous than work life and hanging around the house. (To view most of the comments, scroll down to the bottom of this item and click on the link to Slate’s reader forum, “The Fray.” Be warned that, as is the case with most chat rooms, you have to wade through a lot of ill-tempered bluster to find the occasional entry that’s genuinely thoughtful or informative; but a recent Slate redesign makes it easier to zoom through to the good stuff.)

As several people noted, the percentages Chatterbox cited in his previous item (“Do Vacations Kill?“) overstate some vacation dangers in the sense that, say, the higher incidence of drowningdeaths compared with fallingdeaths reflects the much greater number of people who swim as compared with the number who climb mountains. (Similarly, the recent increase in the number of amusement park deaths may show not that amusement parks are more dangerous than they used to be, but that more people go to them; though if more people are spending vacation time at amusement parks, as compared with, say, spending them at art museums, that may be making their vacations more dangerous in the aggregate.) On the other hand, several other people noted, given that people spend a lot more time at work than they do on vacation, on a per-hour basis vacation dangers may be understated by the data in the previous item.

Given these difficulties, Chatterbox still feels unequal to the task of proving that vacations either are or aren’t more dangerous than ordinary life. (Perhaps inspiration will strike later this week.) But that doesn’t mean Chatterbox is done with the topic of vacation dangers. Today, he turns his attention to the ways boats can kill you.

We take for our text “Boating Statistics–1997” by the U.S. Coast Guard, whose expertise on these matters is unmatched. According to the report, 700 to 800 people die every year in boat-related fatalities (which, significantly, do not include drownings and other water-related deaths by people who go out on boats, unless the boat itself is somehow responsible–as would be the case, for instance, if someone died from falling off a boat rather than dying during a deliberately planned swim or scuba dive; though if, during a deliberately planned swim or scuba dive, someone were struck by a boat propeller and killed, that would count as a boat-related fatality). In 1997, the number who died in boat-related fatalities was 821. That comes out to 6.7 deaths per 100,000 boats (this is approximate; the Coast Guard doesn’t have data on every single boat in the United States). During the previous decade, the fatality rate varied from about 6 to about 8 deaths per 100,000 boats, even as the number of boats counted by the Coast Guard rose from about 10 million to about 12 million. (The worst year was 1987, when there were 1,036 boat-related fatalities, or 10.4 fatalities per 100,000 boats.) But if 1997 was a not-bad year, relatively speaking, for boat-related deaths, it was a terrible year, relatively speaking, for boat-related injuries: there were 4,555, a record high.

Eighty-two percent of 1997’s boat-related fatalities occurred on boats shorter than 26 feet in length. More than half of these occurred on boats less than 16 feet in length. Forty percent of boat-related fatalities occurred when someone who did not own the boat was operating it. Open motor boats were responsible for the vast majority of boating-related fatalities, with canoes and kayaks ranking a very distant second. (Open motor boats were also responsible for the vast majority of boat-related hospital admissions, with cabin motorboats ranking a distant second and canoes and kayaks ranking an even-more distant sixth; presumably if you get into a serious accident on a kayak or canoe, it’s more difficult to get yourself to a hospital.)

A shockingly high proportion of boating accidents–27 percent–involve alcohol, and given people’s incentive to lie about such things and the difficulty of administering breathalyzer tests under such circumstances, this statistic surely understates the problem. According to the Coast Guard, a boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration above .10 percent is more than 10 times more likely to be killed in a boating accident as a boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration of zero. According to Jeffrey Hadley, a research associate at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health’s Center for Injury, Research, and Policy, an unbelievably high proportion of people who kill themselves on boats are male–based on his research in Maryland, it’s something like 90 percent. That should be evident not only by the high correlation between accidents and alcohol consumption, but also by the other major factors causing boat accidents–excessive speed, careless or reckless operation, inattention to what’s looming up ahead, inexperience. (By comparison, “equipment failure” registers hardly at all.) These are guys who get drunk and behave in stupid ways that are characteristically (though of course not exclusively) male.

[Apologia, Aug. 31: Readers of an earlier version of this item may have been puzzled by its erroneous assertion that the number of boats in the United States, as counted by the Coast Guard, rose from “about 10,000 to about 12,0000” between 1987 and 1997. That should have read–and now does read–“about 10 million to about 12 million.” Sorry for the mistake.]