Boating accidents in Minnesota have surged to their highest level in nearly a decade, a spike state officials speculate could be fueled by distractions caused by smartphones and other hand-held technology.

While there were fewer boating deaths in Minnesota in 2017 than in recent years, preliminary year-end numbers from the state Department of Natural Resources show that the state recorded 90 boating accidents in 2017 — the most since 2007.

DNR conservation officers say a number of factors could explain the increase, including a longer boating season and moderate gas prices in 2017, which led to more boaters on Minnesota waterways. However, many were distracted — preoccupied by smartphones, solar and radar screens and GPS.

“Distracted boating is becoming increasingly a problem,” said Lt. Adam Block, the state boating law administrator.

The number of boating accidents reported in the Land of 10,000 Lakes has more than doubled over the past four years, going from 36 in 2014 to 71 in 2015, 79 last year and 90 in 2017.

While there is a state statute regulating distracted driving by motorists, there is none for distracted boating. Boaters can receive a ticket for careless boating, which is a misdemeanor offense. But it’s difficult to enforce on waterways.

“As technology increases, people have their heads down a lot more than they [once] did,” said Jake Willis, a Maplewood-based conservation officer who patrols the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.

“It’s packed out there on weekends,” he added. “That’s what becomes so dangerous. There are no lanes, no stop signs. If you’re looking down at your phone for 30 seconds, things can change.”

Long seasons

Boating traffic and the length of the boating season in Minnesota, which ranks No. 1 nationwide for boat ownership per capita, is driven largely by weather conditions.

In 2015, the state saw an uptick in boating-related deaths after an early ice-out and long stretch of warm weather. Low gas prices and another extended season boosted boat traffic again a year later. It was much the same scenario in 2017, too, as moderate gas prices and a warm autumn resulted in another long boating season.

After early lake ice-outs last spring, the state had some of the earliest boating fatalities on record, prompting a warning that the state was on pace for a particularly deadly year.

Instead, according to DNR numbers, 12 people died while boating on Minnesota rivers and lakes in 2017, compared with 17 in 2016 and 18 in 2015, which marked an 11-year high.

Of the 12 fatalities, only one person was wearing a life jacket. The first death was recorded in February, the last in September. All but one of the victims were men, and the average age of the victims was 50.

Five of 12 deaths involved small watercraft — canoes, a kayak, rowboat and sailboat — undermining the widespread belief that fatal boating incidents involve big and fast boats.

Last March in Anoka County, a 31-year-old man drowned after falling overboard from a rowboat while trying to retrieve a snowmobile that had sunk. And in June, a 27-year-old Woodbury man drowned on Lake Jane in Washington County when the motorized 15-foot canoe that he and two other men were fishing from started taking on water and capsized.

The number of boating fatalities in recent years pales in comparison, however, with the number recorded in the 1960s and ’70s, when the DNR first started keeping track. Back then, the agency recorded an average of nearly 60 deaths a year.

Over the succeeding decades, the number of deaths fell as education and enforcement efforts ramped up. Today, according to Coast Guard data, Minnesota has a lower-than-average fatality rate compared to other states.

Still, officials say that number could be even lower, and they remind boaters to wear life jackets and have a sober driver.

“These are preventable [incidents],” Block said. “We just have to educate and inform.”