Florida has done it again. The state leads the country once more in the number of boating accidents and fatalities, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The numbers were released in a wildlife commission report looking at 2011 accidents earlier this week. According to the report, there were 742 boating accidents last year that caused 67 fatalities.
But although the state leads the country in boating accidents, the numbers are not surprising to boating officials. In Florida, boating is a year-round activity. The state is also home to the most registered boats in the country, totaling nearly 1 million vessels, and the commission estimates there may be another 1 million nonregistered boats.
"There's a lot of factors that play into it," said Rusty Gardner, president of FloridaByWater.com, a website that lists destinations reachable by boat. "Just to say that Florida has the most boating accidents is kind of a bad rap."
According to the report, most boating accidents were caused when boaters crashed into other boats or items, and the leading cause of death was drowning. The number of accidents also increased from 668 in 2010, but the total of registered boats declined by about 20,000.
By county, Monroe leads the state with the most accidents. Pinellas ranked sixth with 36 accidents, three of them fatal. Hillsborough was ninth with 20 accidents, six of them fatal.
So far this year, there have been 28 boating fatalities throughout the state. Among them was Christopher Zutes, 28, who drowned after falling off his 20-foot boat on the Fourth of July in Old Tampa Bay. Zutes was not wearing a life jacket, which wildlife officials said is a challenge they often face with boaters.
"There's really no reason not to wear them," said wildlife commission spokesman Gary Morse.
For about the past 10 years — except for one year when California was No. 1 — Florida has been ranked at the top, said commission boating safety specialist, Brian Rehwinkel.
He said the report did bring some good news to the agency. The number of boaters with boating safety education ID cards increased statewide, including in the bay area. Pinellas reported 1,389 ID cards, compared to 1,211 in 2010. In Hillsborough, 1,127 ID cards were distributed, up from 765 in 2010.
"We have seen an increase in cards issued," Rehwinkel said. "But part of that goes back to that we have made a conscious effort to try to get everyone."
In Florida, it is not required to complete a boating course to operate a boat with an engine of 10 horsepower or greater unless the boater was born on or after Jan. 1, 1988.
The wildlife commission, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Power Squadrons all offer boating courses, Rehwinkel said. The wildlife commission also offers online courses and mails home-study course booklets to boaters for free. "I think the point here," Morse said, "is that most of these boating accidents are preventable."