Boating laws tend to be more complex than motor vehicle laws
Boating is a popular outdoor activity in Alabama. From the Alabama River to Mobile Bay to Wheeler Lake, there is no shortage of options when it comes to cruising the water in the Heart of Dixie.
Although it’s easy to feel completely free when you’re sailing the sunlit waters of the Gulf Coast with a cold beer or glass of wine in hand, there are boating laws you must follow. These laws become particularly important in the event of a boating accident.
Sadly, boat accidents happen all too often in Alabama.
Common causes of boat accidents
In the United States, there were 5,265 boating accidents in 2020. Of these accidents, 767 were fatal and 3,191 resulted in at least 1 injury. About 2.5% of these fatalities occurred in Alabama.
|Alabama boat accident statistics (2016-2020)|
|Source: USCG Recreational Boating Statistics 2020|
The USCG reviews all reported boat accidents in the U.S. every year and publishes a report listing the top 10 boat accident contributing factors. Here are the latest findings:
|Top 10 boating accident contributing factors (2020)|
|Contributing factor||Number of accidents||Number of deaths||Number of injuries|
|Navigation rules violation||316||26||220|
|Source: USCG Recreational Boating Statistics 2020|
In Alabama, alcohol played a role in 11 of the 96 total accidents in 2020 (11.46%). The year before it played a role in 11.88% of all accidents, and the year before that it played a role in 13.64% of all boat accidents.
Alabama boat laws
Alabama has a number of state laws that govern the operation of boats. These laws tend to be more complicated than the laws that govern motor vehicles. Generally, the laws can be broken up as follows:
- Licensing and registration
- Water operations
- Equipment requirements
- Accident reporting requirements
1. Licensing and registration
Just like motor vehicle drivers in Alabama, boaters must have a license in order to operate a boat.
To obtain a boat license in Alabama, you must be at least 12 years old. If you are 14 years old and have a valid boat license, you can operate a boat unsupervised. People who are 12 or 13 years old can operate a boat so long as they have a valid boat license and there’s someone 21 years old or older on the boat.
Under no circumstances is a person under the age of 12 permitted to operate a boat.
To obtain a boat license, you must:
- Go to the Department of Public Safety Driver’s License Examining Office in your county of residence.
- Fill out an application and pay the fee ($5).
- Successfully complete an exam or show proof of exemption (boating course certificate of completion).
- Take the proper form to an Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) driver license exam office to have the “V” class placed on your driver’s license.
2. Water operations
Just like driving a car, there are a lot of things you CANNOT do while operating a boat. Here are some of the highlights:
- You cannot operate a boat in a reckless or careless manner. Examples include riding on a boat with your lower extremities hanging over the gunwale and creating a hazardous wake in a congested area.
- You cannot operate a boat in violation of any established speed zone.
- You cannot operate a boat powered by an engine or outboard motor in such a manner as to exceed a noise level of 86 decibels measured at a minimum distance of 50 feet from the boat.
- You cannot operate a boat that is loaded with passengers or cargo beyond its safe carrying capacity, taking into consideration weather and existing operating conditions.
- You cannot moor to (except in emergencies) or interfere with any regulatory signs, markers, or aids to navigation.
- When towing a person on water skis or a similar device, there must be a person in the boat (in addition to the boat operator) who is at least 12 years old and can observe the person or object being towed.
Can I drink alcohol on a boat?
It’s illegal to operate a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or any combination of alcohol, controlled substances, or drugs.
A person is considered to be “under the influence” in Alabama if the result of a breath or blood test shows any of the following:
- A blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .08% or higher for adults (21 and over)
- Any amount of BAC if under the age of 21
When operating a boat, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter another boat. When this happens, there are some things you should keep in mind:
- Boats passing head-on must keep to the right.
- A boat overtaking another boat may do so on either side but must grant the right-of-way to the boat being overtaken.
- When boats are passing at right angles, the boat on the left must yield the right-of-way to the boat on the right.
- Motorboats must yield the right-of-way to non-motor-powered boats in most cases.
3. Equipment requirements
If you’re riding in the front seat of a motor vehicle in Alabama, you’re required to wear a seatbelt. Similarly, the car must be equipped with at least 4 headlamps.
So what about boats? Are there similar laws in place to help keep you safe?
Here’s what you need to know about boat equipment:
- All boat operators, passengers, or persons being towed must wear a USCG-approved life preserver.
- All boats must carry a Type I, II, III, or V USCG-approved personal flotation device (PFD) for each person on board or being towed. All PFDs must be in good condition and be readily accessible.
- Unless your personal watercraft has a self-circling feature, you must have a “kill switch” attached to the operator.
- Boat operators must use proper navigation lights when away from the dock between sunset and sunrise and during periods of restricted visibility.
- All personal watercraft used for towing any person shall be equipped with rearview mirrors.
4. Accident reporting requirements
In Alabama, you must report a boat accident to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources within 10 days of the accident it resulted in:
- The loss of life or the disappearance of any person,
- Injury causing any person to remain incapacitated for a period in excess of 72 hours, or
- Actual damage to any boat or to any other property in excess of $2,000.
301 South Ripley Street
Montgomery, AL 36104
How to recover damages after an Alabama boat accident
To receive compensation for a boat accident, you need to prove that someone else was at fault (i.e., responsible) for your accident. In most cases, this means proving that the person was negligent.
To establish negligence in Alabama, you must prove 3 elements:
- The defendant owed you a duty to exercise reasonable care
- The defendant breached their duty to exercise reasonable care, and
- The defendant’s breach was the cause of your accident.
Some examples of the parties who may be liable in a boat accident include:
- The operator of a boat. A boat operator may be liable if, for example, they were operating the boat while intoxicated or were driving too fast in the conditions.
- Passengers. A passenger may be liable if they acted in a way that caused the accident, such as starting a fight that disabled or incapacitated the boat operator.
- Manufacturers. A manufacturer may be liable if the boat accident was the result of a defective product.
Keep in mind that Alabama is a pure contributory negligence state. This means that if you’re found to be even 1% at fault for the accident, you’re prohibited from recovering ANY damages.
Kelsey’s body was found 3 months later.
Jodi and Nick Suggs were charged with criminally negligent homicide, but they ultimately pled guilty to the lesser charge of negligent operation of a water vessel.
Alabama Code Section 13A-6-4 states that: “A person commits the crime of criminally negligent homicide if he causes the death of another person by criminal negligence.”
The tragic story of Kelsey Starling is a good reminder that, in addition to a civil lawsuit, criminal charges may be brought after a boat accident in certain situations.
In Alabama, you only have 2 years from the date of the accident to file a personal injury lawsuit. Accordingly, it’s important that you talk to an attorney as soon as possible if you think you may want to file a claim.
How insurance coverage may impact your boat accident claim
If the person who causes your accident has boat liability insurance, you may be able to file a claim up to the policy limits.
Unfortunately, boat insurance is not required in Alabama.
Motor vehicle insurance does not cover boat accidents and only some homeowner’s insurance policies cover boat accidents.
Are you ready to talk to an attorney about your boat accident? Find an experienced Alabama personal injury attorney in our free online legal directory.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.