Despite drop in boating accidents in Illinois, deaths held steady
Boating on the Chain O' Lakes over Independence Day weekend was a popular activity -- and a pretty safe one, with the Lake County sheriff's office responding to only two crashes even as large crowds took to the waters, local officials said.
"There was definitely a post-COVID-19 surge on our waterway this past Independence Day weekend," Fox Waterway Agency Director Joe Keller said. "The weather was perfect, and after last year's cancellation of Fourth of July fireworks shows, this year was huge. Nippersink Lake was a sea of lights with an estimated 5,000 boats for the show on the lake alone."
Although one of the accidents Lake County deputies responded to involved a wave runner striking a tuber who suffered minor injuries, the weekend of large crowds and mostly compliant, safe boaters on the Chain is an example of how boating crashes have become less common throughout Illinois in recent years.
With more boaters -- some of them new and inexperienced -- hitting local waterways as many preferred outdoor recreation activities over indoor entertainment amid COVID-19, 2020 still saw far fewer boating accidents throughout Illinois than a decade before, and the number of crashes has steadily declined since 1995, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which has data showing annual counts based on a fiscal year that starts in October and ends in September.
Boat dealers in the area have been out of stock of many models since the pandemic piqued interest in ownership, and boat club businesses that give members the chance to get out on the water for monthly charges without outright buying and maintaining a boat recently have opened locations in McHenry and Lake counties, some for the first time this season.
Plus, the Fox Waterway Agency had seen an additional $200,000 in user fee revenue at the end of June compared with the entirety of boat sticker sales last year, which was a strong year, Keller said.
Yet crashes were rare over the busy weekend on the Chain, where the Lake County sheriff's office marine unit also conducted 37 traffic stops but did not make any arrests for operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the water, said Lt. Christopher Covelli, the agency's spokesman.
Deputies responded to one fight in progress at Blarney's Island on July 3, and they expect to file criminal charges once the case is reviewed by the state's attorney's office, he said.
Last year had the most crashes at 81 in the state since 2012, when there were 101, but 1995 saw 178, and more than 100 occurred each year through 2002, state records show.
Accidents involving injuries have tracked closely with the total number of accidents, with injury incidents declining and rising with the total, and decreasing overall since there was a high of 131 boating injuries in 1994.
That same year, more than 150,000 more boats were registered in Illinois compared with last year, with 381,864 in 1994 and just more than 216,000 in 2020.
Fatal boating incidents have held fairly steady over the past 25 years even as total accidents decreased by almost 55% from the 1995 high to 2020. In fact, 2020 had the most boating fatalities at 21 since 2009, when there were 25, the high since 1996 when there were 27. The year 2002 saw the least fatalities in at least the past 21 years, with eight.
"Oftentimes, fatal boating incidents occur when individuals are not wearing a flotation device, or enter the water not being strong swimmers or under the influence of intoxicants," Covelli said.
Alcohol and drug use is found to be the primary cause of a larger share of the fatal boating accidents than nonfatal incidents that cause an injury, state data shows.
More than 26% of boating fatalities between 2000 and 2020 involved drug or alcohol use as the primary cause, state data shows, while just 9% of injury accidents over the same period were caused primarily by intoxication.
In McHenry County since 2016, 20 boating accidents have occurred, with 11 involving an injury and one death on the Fox River in 2016, state records show. The person who died was 67.
But nine of those 20 accidents in McHenry County were in 2016, and there were four or fewer each year since, state records show.
"To help reduce boating accidents, the McHenry County sheriff's office has increased marine patrol in problematic areas of the Chain and during key times of the day. The sheriff's office is also proactive in reducing accidents by completing hundreds of free boat safety inspections each year and assisting the Illinois Department of Natural Resources with several safety details," McHenry County sheriff's office spokeswoman Emily Matusek said.
A new law took effect in 2016 mandating boat operators to attend a certified boater education course if they were born in 1998 or later in order to operate any powered vessel with 10 horsepower or more, which Covelli expects to boost boating safety over time as more boaters are impacted by the policy.
"This certainly helps with the educational piece of operating a boat. Boats operate significantly differently than vehicles, and it takes experience to learn those differences and operate safely on the waters," he said.
Lake County's portion of the Chain, which includes most of the waterway, had seen nine watercraft crashes so far this year as of last week, with between and 15 crashes total each year since 2013. Eight drowning deaths occurred on the Lake County portion of the Chain during that time, Covelli said, with one last year and none so far this year, and no more than two a year since 2013.
Fireworks were displayed again on the Chain on Saturday, but less boat traffic was on the water with rainy and cool weather over the weekend, Covelli said.
"During holiday weekends or times where we anticipate large numbers taking to the waterways, we increase the number of marine unit deputies working and the number of sheriff's patrol boats we have in the water," he said. "Our marine unit will be out to ensure everyone can enjoy the waters and do so safely. They will work to ensure boaters are not operating carelessly or recklessly, not operating under the influence of intoxicating substances, being mindful of the no-wake areas, speed limits at night and ensuring they have proper lighting when operating during the evening."