Here’s a fun fact:
Kentucky is the only U.S. state that has a continuous border of rivers that run along 3 sides. If you’re in Kentucky, you’re between the Mississippi River on the western side, the Ohio River to the north, and the Big Sandy River and Tug Fork to the east.
Kentucky is also home to the 2 largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi River: Lake Cumberland and Kentucky Lake. The Bluegrass State has only 3 major natural lakes. The Kentucky River, Tennessee River, Cumberland River, Green River and Licking River all run through Kentucky’s borders.
While we often think of boating accidents as being out at sea (cue dramatic scenes from Titanic or other classic movies), they can happen anywhere there’s water.
We know this because of the number of boating accidents and fatalities reported by the U.S. Coast Guard. Take a look at the numbers of boating accidents and fatalities in Kentucky’s lakes and rivers in recent years:
10 common causes of boat accidents
- Operator error. Just like distracted driving is a hazard while driving a car, so is distracted navigation on the water. A boat operator should always remain alert and aware of the physical condition of the boat, weather, water depth or other environmental conditions, and other hazards.
- Operator inexperience. The U.S. Coast Guard says inexperience is one of the top 3 reasons why boat accidents happen. You have to be familiar enough with your boat and how to maneuver it so that you can quickly adapt to any unexpected situation that arises on the water.
- Boating under the influence. We all know that drunk driving is illegal in Kentucky when you’re behind the wheel of a car. It’s also against the law in Kentucky to operate a boat or any other marine vessel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You’re required to have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of lower than .08%, just like if you were driving a car.
- Violating navigation rules. If you don’t follow the rules for correct boat navigation, you could collide with other boats or even run aground.
- Lookout failures. A boat operator should have a lookout onboard. Operating a boat is a big job, so it’s helpful to have another person who knows how to be on the lookout for threats or hazards. That person needs to take the responsibility seriously and be reliable in looking for what’s ahead of and behind the boat.
- Speeding. When you speed, you have less time to react if there’s a hazard in your path. If you’re an experienced boater, it’s important to remember that not every boater will be as skilled or as experienced as you. They might not gauge speed accurately as you approach, or they might not be able to maneuver as smoothly or quickly as they should. Therefore, maintaining a reasonable speed keeps everyone safe.
- Equipment failure. The owner of a boat is responsible for making sure that everything is working properly and the vessel has been properly maintained. Even if you’re renting a boat for a few hours, do a quick inspection before you head out to make sure it looks like the crucial systems are in good working condition.
- Weather conditions. Whether you’re boating on the ocean, a lake, or any body of water, it’s important to check the weather before you go. Storms can approach quickly and with little warning. Consider downloading an app that sends you notifications of weather alerts. However, if you’re too far from shore, your app might not pick up a signal and you won’t get alerts. Have a transistor radio and extra batteries onboard so you can check weather forecasts and know if a storm is approaching.
- Waves or wakes. A “wake” is a water disturbance caused by the force of the boat’s hull or by the forces of other boats nearby. If you’re unprepared to maneuver your boat through a large wave or wake, it can cause you to capsize or collide.
- Hazardous water conditions. There are some water hazards that you can prepare for ahead of time. Understanding tides, knowing the depth of the water, and having a map of where rocks and other permanent obstacles are located is important. Water hazards can include wrecks, obstructions, rocks, islets, breakers, or spoil areas.
There are circumstances when water conditions might change quickly, and you need to be able to manage those, too. For example, a wind-against-tide condition increases the wind speed you’re experiencing and creates short, steep waves that could be dangerous. When the wind and tide are moving in the same direction, the effective wind speed is slower.
Each of these causes of boat accidents can lead to injuries, and they can be boiled down to 4 most common occurrences:
- Slip and fall accidents on wet surfaces
- Boat collisions
- Sinking or tipping
Kentucky boating laws and regulations
Below, we’ve listed some of Kentucky’s boating laws and regulations you need to follow.
A boat operator must be at least 12 years old
This applies to operating a motorboat or personal watercraft (PWC) 10 horsepower or more on Kentucky public waters. A person age 12-17 must have a Kentucky Safe Boating Certificate Card or have successfully completed an approved boater education course.
Personal watercraft (PWC)
These are vessels with an internal combustion engine and jet pump for propulsion. They’re operated by someone sitting, standing, or kneeling atop the vessel rather than inside, like a boat. However, the same laws that apply to boats apply to PWCs, but there are a few additional requirements:
- A PWC may only be operated from sunrise to sunset.
- The PWC must have a lanyard engine kill switch attached to the operator if it doesn’t have self-circling capability.
- An operator or passenger must wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD).
- Reckless operation. An operator is responsible for any damage caused by their negligence. Recklessness can include weaving through boat traffic, following too closely, jumping the wake, crossing a boat’s path when visibility is obstructed, sharp turns and other behaviors that are unsafe.
- Idle speed. This is usually the speed when the boat is in gear but the operator is not advancing the throttle. It’s important for an operator to be aware of speed so that they don’t allow their wake to capsize a boat moored at a marina or dock. An operator is liable for damage caused by their boat’s wake.
- Locks and dams. If a lock is not available as the boat approaches, the operator should keep their boat at a safe distance from the approach channel. Low dams are dangerous because they’re sometimes not recognizable when water is flowing over them. The flow of water over the dam creates what’s called a “boil” on the lower side and a boater would risk “almost certain death” if caught in the turbulence, according to the Coast Guard.
- Restricted zones. You are not permitted to operate a boat in a restricted area. Be aware of where these locations are in order to avoid them.
- Operating under the influence. Just like you’re not able to drive a car while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the same is the case for boats. If you are operating any vessel on Kentucky waters, you are considered to be giving consent to being tested for blood alcohol content or drugs if an officer has probable cause to believe you’re intoxicated. If you refuse a test, you are violating the law.
- Small watercraft. Approximately half of boat fatalities involve small watercraft (those that are less than 16 feet long). They are often unstable and can capsize or throw occupants overboard.
- Prohibited riding. The Coast Guard says that approximately half of boat-related fatalities are from people falling overboard. If your boat is above idle speed, the operator and passengers are not permitted to ride on an enclosed bow; outside protective railing of a pontoon or houseboat; on a seat that’s 6 inches or more above the plane of the gunwales; or on the sides, back, engine cover, back of seat, or any other dangerous position.
There are 3 ways that boaters interact with other vessels: meeting, crossing, or overtaking.
In an emergency, every vessel must yield to avoid a crash. Drivers should also use their navigation lights in order to indicate right of way. Unlike driving a car or truck on the road, the water doesn’t have painted lines to show boat traffic where to go. Therefore, a boat operator has to understand the rules of the water.
- Meeting: If 2 boats are approaching each other head-on, they both should veer to their right so that they may pass each other heading in opposite directions.
- Overtaking: If 1 boat is behind another and wants to pass, it should pass on the right where possible. Rowboats and paddle boats have the right of way before motorboats, and recreational boats should yield to commercial boats like barges and towboats.
- Crossing: If boats are set to cross each other’s paths, the stand-on vessel should hold course and speed, and a give-way vessel should turn within a 112° “danger zone” to avoid collision.
Buoys are used similarly to traffic markers on the road. If you’re boating in unfamiliar areas, look for buoys to help you navigate your way.
- Personal flotation devices. Each person on a boat must have a Type I, II, or III PFD as defined by the Coast Guard. If the boat is 16 feet long or more, there must also be a Type IV throwable PFD.
- Fire extinguisher. Any boat that carries petroleum (like gasoline, kerosene, or propane) must have a fire extinguisher in good working condition and that’s easily accessible. Before you head out, check the regulations to learn how many fire extinguishers you’re required to have based on the size of your boat.A motorboat with an enclosed engine is required to maintain an approved carburetor backfire flame arrestor system in case of fire.
Kentucky also requires a boat to be adequately ventilated in any area where flammable vapors could accumulate. There are both active and passive ventilation systems, and an operator should run an electrical blower for several minutes after refueling in order to rid the boat of flammable vapors.
- Lights and signals. Between sunrise and sunset, a vessel must have proper navigation lights that are either red, green or white. If it’s sunset to sunrise and there are other boats nearby, an anchored vessel must have a steady white light that’s visible from all 360 degrees. If the boat is manually propelled, it must have a white light that is displayed adequately to avoid a collision.A boat 16 feet or longer must also have audible signaling capability. These sounds must include a 2-second-long blast (or longer), audible for a half mile for a class 3 vessel.
You must file an accident report after a boating accident if there’s a death or disappearance, personal injury that requires medical attention, or loss or property damage of $500 or more.
You can file a Kentucky boating accident report here.
If you’re the operator of a boat involved in an accident, you must provide aid to any person in need, as long as you’re not endangering your own crew, passengers, or vessel. Like a car accident, you’re also required to provide your name, address, and other identification to any other involved party.
10 tips for safe boating
- Pay attention to the weather. Be sure to have a portable radio onboard (and an ample supply of batteries) and watch out for sudden wind shifts, lightning flashes, or choppy water that might indicate an approaching storm. Don’t exclusively rely on a mobile phone app for weather forecasts. If you sail out of your phone’s range or if the weather turns bad, you might not be able to get a phone signal.
- Take a safe boating course. You’ll learn methods and strategies for staying safe, and you might be able to reduce the cost of your boat insurance.
- Bring extra gear. Be sure you have a flashlight, extra batteries, matches, maps (physical maps in addition to mapping apps on your phone), flares, sunscreen, first aid kit, sunglasses, rainproof clothes, extra lightweight clothes for layering. Store important items in a waterproof container.
- Be accountable. Let a friend or family member know where you’re headed and when to expect you back. That way, if you run into trouble, someone knows when and where to send help.
- Check your boat. Before you leave, check that your boat is in good working condition, including equipment, boat balance, engine, and fuel supply. Open the hatches, run the blower, and make sure you don’t detect gasoline fumes in the fuel or engine areas.
- Be sure each person knows where to find a properly fitting life jacket and can access it easily.
- Anchor from the bow, not the stern, and use an anchor length at least 5 times longer than the water depth.
- Have the Coast Guard-required distress flag and light.
- Know your boat’s capacity. Your boat might have a Capacity Plate that specifies the maximum number of people it can hold and the correct size for your engine. If not, here’s how to calculate your boat’s capacity:
Measure your boat’s length. Then, measure the width. Multiply these 2 figures and divide by the average weight per person. Figure on 150 pounds as an average weight per person
People = length x width
- Never drive a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Have you heard of “boater’s hypnosis”? It actually doesn’t involve alcohol. When a boater is out for several hours and is exposed to powerboat noise, vibration, sun, glare, wind, and motion, they could experience slowed reaction times... almost like being drunk.
When you add alcohol to this situation, it’s not good. For one thing, a tipsy person is more likely to tip overboard. Alcohol also decreases your body’s ability to withstand the effects of cold water.
In addition, a person who is drunk could become confused in the water and actually swim down instead of up toward the water’s surface, which can lead to drowning. Even if you don’t end up overboard, boating while intoxicated is dangerous (and illegal) in the same ways as driving a motor vehicle while under the influence.
Kentucky’s pure comparative negligence rule
Kentucky follows a pure comparative negligence standard. Under this rule, damages recovered by a plaintiff will be reduced according to the plaintiff’s percentage of fault.
If you or a loved one were injured in a boat accident and not at fault, the incident should not cost you money.
Boating accidents are complex, in part because they are sometimes attributable to factors beyond the boaters’ control, such as weather and currents. Still, a boater can be negligent for boating under unsafe conditions if it was reasonably foreseeable that the weather would turn bad or there could be hazardous conditions on a lake or river.
That’s why you need a Kentucky boating accident lawyer if you’re involved in a serious crash or capsize. Your lawyer can hire experts who can investigate the claim and determine how the accident happened and who was at fault. Whether your accident was a collision, a slip-and-fall, an overboard incident, or something else, the lawyer can determine liability and help the injured person to claim damages.