A report conducted in 2012 details the effect of cell phone distractions on vessel operators. According to the Coast Guard, out of the 4,730 boating accidents in that year, 23% of accidents involved “operator inattention” or “improper lookout.” Texting and talking on a cell phone while operating a boat or another vessel on navigable waters is a serious safety concern that often goes ignored by operators. There have been several instances of accidents and deaths directly caused by distracted operators and a jury may find them to be negligent or having committed a navigational error in a maritime court.


Talking on Cell Phone = Failure to Maintain Lookout

cell phone distractionsIn the Omega Protein Limitation Proceedings, 2009 AMC 245, 548 F.3d 361 (5th Cir. 2008), a fishing vessel struck an offshore oil platform, and both parties were found to be at fault.  The platform was not properly lit, and the Captain of the fishing vessel was distracted with the repair or replacement of a critical component of the vessel’s refrigeration system that malfunctioned.  The owner of the fishing vessel sought to limit its liability for the casualty.  However, the District Court found the master of the fishing vessel committed a navigational error by not making effective use of the radar and not maintaining a proper lookout – because he was on a cell phone calling for a replacement part.

A call for stricter texting and boating laws

In July 2015, the US Coast Guard prohibited the use of cell phones by their vessel operators and extended stricter cell phone usage regulations to the other crew members. These new regulations come after several years of statistics reporting that “improper lookout” and “operator inattention” are the leading causes of boating accidents. Specifically, cell phone usage by vessel operators was called into question after a fatal boating accident between a tugboat and a “duck boat” in Washington, D.C. in 2012.

After the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident, it was discovered that the tugboat operator had been using the company laptop and had made several phone calls during the time of the crash that claimed the lives of two people and injured 26 others. The new regulations on cell phone usage by the Coast Guard is the first step in what may lead to further legislation on the usage of mobile devices and boating.