What Michigan boaters should know for a safe and enjoyable boating season

Are you ready for summer boating season? (Photo provided by Sam Bernstein) (Copyright (c) 2016 Collin Quinn Lomax/Shutterstock. No use without permission.)

For boaters and water sport enthusiasts, there’s a lot to love about Michigan – including over 3,000 miles of Great Lakes coastline and more than 11,000 inland lakes and waterways.

For many, summer is the ideal time to take up water skiing, learn to swim or sail around the coast of the Upper Peninsula. Unfortunately, summer is also the season when most drownings and boating accidents occur.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, drowning is the fifth-leading cause of accidental injury death in the United States, causing more than 3,500 deaths a year or approximately 10 deaths per day. What’s more, 20% of these drowning victims are 14 years old or younger. For children ages 4 and under, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death. Additionally, the majority of recreational boating fatalities are due to drowning.

In Michigan, the number of people who have drowned in the Great Lakes has doubled over the past several years, from 55 in 2015 to 109 in 2020. According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes water safety, Lake Michigan is the deadliest of the Great Lakes.

Recreational boating accidents increase

According to recent annual statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard, 4,168 reported boating accidents resulted in the deaths of 613 people while another 2,559 people were seriously injured. For 79% of the victims, drowning was the official cause of death.

Compared to data from the previous year, boat injuries increased by almost 2%.

Further, 80% of the boaters who drowned were riding in vessels less than 21 feet long. Almost half of these fatal accidents involved open motorboats, followed by kayaks, pontoons and personal watercraft.

In addition, these accidents caused more than $55 million of property damage.

Despite these grim statistics, many drowning deaths can be prevented by taking certain safety measures and avoiding other risky behaviors.

Common causes of boating accidents

The U.S. Coast Guard identifies five leading causes of recreational boating accidents:

  • Alcohol use (by boat driver or passengers): Alcohol use was the major contributing factor in 23% of fatal boating accidents.
  • Failure to wear a life jacket: Approximately 86% of those who drowned in boating accidents were not wearing life jackets.
  • Operator inattention and/or improper lookout: In these accidents, the boat driver (or person assigned to serve as lookout) was distracted and failed to notice an oncoming vessel or other impending danger.
  • Lack of operator instruction and experience: 70% of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had not received proper boating safety instruction. In contrast, accidents where the operator had earned a nationally approved boating safety education certificate resulted in 20% of fatal accidents.
  • Excessive speed: Speeding is a major cause of serious boating accidents, on the water as well as on the highway. In fact, driving a boat at high speed can be more dangerous than speeding in a car because it takes more time to stop or change direction in order to avoid a crash.

Michigan life jacket laws

There is no doubt that life jackets save lives, yet many boaters fail to wear proper PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices) or provide them for passengers. Not only is this unsafe, it’s also illegal, according to the following Michigan life jacket laws.

  • All vessels must carry at least one USCG (U.S. Coast Guard)-approved Type I, II or III PFD for each person on board. This rule also applies to anyone who is being towed, such as a water-skier.
  • Life jackets must be the proper size for each person on board or being towed. Sizing for PFDs is based on body weight and chest size.
  • All children under 6 must wear a USCG-approved Type I or II PFD when riding on the open deck of any vessel that is underway.
  • Vessels less than 16 feet long, including canoes or kayaks, must have either a wearable PFD (Type I, II or III) or a throwable PFD (Type IV) for each person on board.
  • In addition, vessels 16 feet or longer must have one readily accessible USCG-approved throwable device.
  • Each person riding on a PWC (personal watercraft such as a Jet Ski), or being towed behind a PWC or other vessel, must wear a USCG-approved Type I, II or III PFD.
  • Inflatable PFDs are not allowed for anyone riding on a PWC or being towed behind a PWC or another vessel.
  • All PFDs must be in good and serviceable condition.
  • When not being worn, PFDs must be properly stowed and readily accessible.

Michigan boating alcohol laws

The Michigan laws regarding alcohol use on boats are similar to the rules for those driving cars and trucks.

  • It is illegal to operate a boat with a BAC (blood-alcohol content) of .08 or higher, the same legal standard that applies to motor vehicle drivers.
  • There is a zero-tolerance policy for boat operators under the age of 21. If these boaters are found with any amount of alcohol in their system, they can be charged with a misdemeanor. The charges can be more serious if they are involved in an accident in which someone is injured.
  • It is illegal for boat operators of any age to have any amount of a Schedule 1 controlled substance in their system, such as heroin, cocaine, LSD, MDMA and psilocybin.
  • Anyone who operates a motorboat on Michigan waters automatically consents to be tested for alcohol or drugs at the request of law enforcement. Boat drivers who refuse to take a sobriety test will be banned from operating a boat for one year.
  • Boat operators who are intoxicated while carrying a passenger 16 years old or younger will be subject to a misdemeanor violation.
  • Boat owners may not allow another person who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol to operate their boat.
  • Authorized law enforcement officials may stop and board a boat if they suspect a law is being violated.
  • Boat operators whose BAC is above the legal limit of 0.08 may be charged with a misdemeanor. Three convictions within 10 years is considered a felony.
  • Boat operators who cause serious bodily injury or death to another person while under the influence of drugs or alcohol will be charged with a felony and punished accordingly, including facing possible fines and imprisonment.

Why passengers should limit alcohol

While passengers on a boat are legally allowed to drink, excessive alcohol consumption can be dangerous. First, drinking causes some people to lose inhibition and become loud or disorderly. This behavior is distracting to the boat driver and could result in an accident. In addition, alcohol impairment may affect a passenger’s ability to react quickly and responsibly in case of an emergency.

Boating safety tips

  • Don’t drink and drive a boat.
  • Wear a life jacket and insist your passengers wear them, too.
  • Don’t speed. The maximum speed is 55 mph in all water except the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair. On those lakes, boats within one mile of the shoreline must also adhere to the 55 mph speed limit.
  • Be considerate of other boaters.
  • Keep a boating safety kit on board. Include a flashlight, duct tape, a bucket, a whistle, rope, a fire extinguisher, garbage bags, flares and a first aid kit.
  • Check the weather forecast before departing.
  • Follow the specified capacity limit for people and/or weight.
  • After refueling, open the hatches and smell for fumes. Check enclosed spaces and other places carbon monoxide can accumulate. Do not start the engine if you smell gas or other fumes.
  • Have your boat checked professionally or request a free vessel safety check from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
  • Take a boating safety course.

Put an experienced boating accident lawyer to work for you today

“We want everyone to have a safe and enjoyable time on Michigan’s beautiful waterways, but we realize accidents can happen to the most careful boaters,” said Mark Bernstein of The Sam Bernstein Law Firm. “If you or a loved one is injured in a boating accident, our knowledgeable legal team can help. We have the expertise, experience and resources to win the compensation you and your family deserve.”

Boating accident law is complicated, but finding the right lawyer is simple.

Start your case today. Visit The Sam Bernstein Law Firm website or 1-800-CALL-SAM for a free, no-obligation remote consultation from the safety of your home.


*CDC: Water-related injuries fact sheet

**Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project/National Drowning Prevention Alliance

***2019 Recreational Boating Statistics: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

****U.S. Coast Guard: Vessel Safety Checks