RICHMOND, VA-Each year, hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the wide array of boating opportunities the Commonwealth of Virginia has to offer. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) is charged with tracking this activity by registering and titling recreational boats for the state. As of July 1, 1999, there were 236,743 boats registered in Virginia. Personal watercraft (PWCs), such as Sea Doo, Jet Skis or Wave Runners, made up 20,025, or 8.5 percent of that. Five years ago in 1994, we had 216,828 boats registered in Virginia, with PWCs accounting for 7,076 or just over 3 percent. With more boats out on the water, boaters must take extra care and caution as they maneuver Virginia^s rivers and lakes.
VDGIF is also charged with compiling boating accident reports for the state. To be considered reportable a boating accident will have caused damage estimated at $500 or more; or an injury requiring more than first aid; or a death or disappearance. Accidents that do not meet one of these criteria are not considered reportable and are not included in the boating accident totals.
With the increase in the number of boats on the water has come an increase in reportable accidents. In 1994, there were a total of 129 reportable accidents. In 1998, there were 184 reportable accidents. In 1994, there were 14 fatalities, none involving PWCs. Twenty people lost their lives in boating accidents in 1998, three of those in PWC accidents. It should be noted that one of the most consistent statistics that we have in recreational boating is that about 80 percent of boat accident fatalities likely could have been avoided if the individual had been wearing a life jacket.
At mid-year, from January 1 through June 30, 1999, there were 72 reportable accidents in Virginia. Out of those accidents, 15 involved PWCs (about 21 percent). In that same time period, there were 14 boating fatalities, none involving PWCs. For the previous year, from January 1 thorough June 30, 1998, there were 75 reportable accidents. Seventeen of those accidents involved PWCs (about 23 percent). In that same time period last year, there were 11 boating fatalities, two involving PWCs.
An encouraging statistic within the boating accident numbers is the decline in the percentage of accidents that involve PWCs. In 1994, 32 percent of our accidents involved PWCs, and the trend upward continued through 1997 when 40 percent of the accidents involved PWCs. In 1998, 27 percent of the accidents involved personal watercraft.
Holiday weekends always draw boaters to the water, and the July 4th weekend is perhaps the busiest of the year. During this past July 4th weekend, there were 15 reportable accidents with 7 of those accidents involving PWCs. We^re very pleased to report that no fatalities occurred during that recent holiday weekend. Last year during the July 4th holiday weekend there were 19 reportable accidents, five of which involved PWCs. Also last year we had four fatalities, none of which involved PWCs.
To prevent accidents, VDGIF encourages boat owners to take a boating safety course to learn the rules of the waterway. A boating education course will better prepare boaters for emergencies and increase their knowledge about safety equipment requirements. The Department offers courses statewide, as does the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U. S. Power Squadrons. To find out more about boating education courses in your area call toll free 1-877-345-LAWS (5297) or check out the Department^s web site at www.dgif.state.va.us. The Virginia Watercraft Owner^s Guide provides information on recreational boating safety and legal requirements and can be obtained by calling 1-804-367-9369.
In addition to taking a boating education course, boat owners should follow these two rules. First, boating and alcohol just do not mix - boating without alcohol just makes sense. Second, all occupants should wear their personal flotation devices. It^s not enough to have them on board. Accidents can happen too fast for occupants to locate and put on their life jackets. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries encourages boaters to follow these guidelines to help ensure a safe and fun day on the water. Our message is simple - Be Responsible, Be Safe, Have Fun!