Safety at the forefront as boating season upon us

Illinois law requires that personal floatation devices, or PFDs — which are life jackets or life vests — be available for each person aboard a boat or other watercraft. (Photo courtesy of National Safe Boating Council)

As the summer boating season approaches, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources conservation police are reminding people to wear life jackets anytime they’re on the water and to only operate boats while sober.

“The ‘Wear It!’ message is a simple and easy message to understand,” said Illinois Conservation Police Lt. Curt Lewis, who is the state’s boating law administrator. “Wearing a life jacket isn’t just a reminder for everyone on a motorboat; it’s also important for everyone who enjoys paddle sports, such as kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards.”

In 2021 there were 93 reportable boating accidents on Illinois waters, resulting in 28 injuries and 16 fatalities, according to statistics compiled by the conservation police.

In 2020, there were 81 boating accidents with 21 fatalities and 36 injuries. And in 2019, there were 72 accidents with 14 fatalities and 42 injuries. (Annual boating accident statistics are compiled based on the federal fiscal year Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.)

Boating accident reports indicate most accidents occur between noon and 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays between June and August. Conditions are usually clear with good visibility, light winds and calm water. Most accidents involve operators between the ages of 20 and 40 who have more than 100 hours of boating experience but little or no classroom boating safety instruction. They also usually involve open motorboats cruising in a careless or reckless manner, culminating in a collision with another boat.

“Wearing a life jacket can save your life, and staying sober while operating a boat is not only common sense, it’s the law,” Lewis said.

As part of the Illinois Conservation Police boating safety enforcement effort, officers also strictly enforce laws regarding operating under the influence (OUI) for boat operators.

Operating a boat under the influence is in some ways riskier than operating a motor vehicle under the influence, Lewis said. On waterways, there are no lane markers, boats have no seatbelts, and there is little protection for occupants should a collision occur.

In 2021 Illinois Conservation Police officers arrested 65 boaters for operating under the influence (OUI), a 36 percent decrease from 2020.

Four of the 16 boating-related fatalities in Illinois in 2021 involved alcohol or drug impairment. The other 12 who died were not wearing life jackets or vests.

Illinois law requires that personal floatation devices, or PFDs — which are life jackets or life vests — be available for each person aboard a boat or other watercraft.

Effective June 1, 2022, no person may operate a watercraft unless everyone under the age of 13 on the deck or in an open watercraft is wearing an approved and appropriately sized PFD. The requirement does not apply to people who are inside a cabin or below the top deck on a watercraft, on an anchored watercraft that is a platform for swimming or diving, or aboard a charter “passenger for hire” watercraft with a licensed captain.

Illinois law requires everyone to wear a PFD while operating a personal watercraft or jet ski.

Lewis stressed that the most proactive action boaters can take to ensure their safety on the water is to wear a Coast Guard-approved PFD of the appropriate size and in serviceable condition.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources offers free boating safety courses that provide a review of boating laws and regulations, as well as instruction on the safe and attentive operation of watercraft.

The department encourages boaters of all ages to take a safety course. Anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1998, must pass a course and have a valid Boating Safety Certificate to operate a motorboat (with over 10 horsepower). State law also requires boating safety education for people ages 12 to 17 to operate a motorboat.

Free safety courses are taught by volunteer instructors and are available throughout Illinois. Find a schedule of courses at For a fee, online boating safety courses are also available.