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5 Rules Montana Boaters Must Follow to Prevent Accidents

Taking your boat or jet ski out for a ride is the perfect way to cool off when the days get hot. But, our rivers, lakes, and reservoirs don’t come with lifeguards, so it’s crucial to follow safety practices. A boat or jet ski accident in the middle of a body of water can prove dangerous and even fatal. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks provides this pre-launch checklist to help boaters make sure they’re prepared, and we recommend you use it for every trip. Completing a boating safety course will also make you better equipped to deal with stressful situations and emergencies.

These resources are optional—but regardless of anyone’s official education in boating, they must follow the rules of the waterway and remember they will be held responsible for any damage or injury they cause. Whether you own a boat or are going out on the water with someone else, make sure you understand these basic rules so you can be safe and identify liability in case of an accident.

1. There Must Be a Wearable Life Jacket on Board for Every Passenger

Drowning is a top cause of boater fatality, and it’s especially tragic because it’s so preventable. By Montana law, a boat must have a wearable life jacket on board for every passenger. These life jackets should be easy to get to and of a size that fits the wearer. Depending on your passengers and vessel type, there may be more strict regulations:

  • If a boat is less than 26 feet in length, children under the age of 12 must wear a life jacket.
  • Windsurfers under the age of 15 must wear a life jacket at all times.
  • If more than one windsurfer is on a sailboard at the same time, both must wear a life jacket.
  • Anyone riding on a personal watercraft (PWC), more commonly known as a jet ski, must wear a life jacket.

Even if the law does not require you to wear a life jacket, putting one on whenever you’re on the water is a good practice. At the very least, you should know where life jackets are stored on the craft so you can reach them in an emergency.

2. Know the “Right” of Way

What happens when 2 boats are on a collision course? Anyone operating one should know the answer: Both vessels must bear to their right to avoid the collision. Other right-of-way rules on Montana waterways include:

  • When one boat is passing another, the boat that is being overtaken has the right-of-way. The passing boat must stay clear of its course.
  • A boat traveling downstream has the right-of-way over a boat traveling upstream.
  • When two boats are going to cross paths, the boat on the right has the right-of-way. The boat on the left should slow down and cross behind the boat on the right.
  • Non-motorized boats (including sailboats under sail) always have right-of-way over motorized boats.

Additionally, boaters are expected to always keep an eye out for swimmers. If possible, they should stay at least 200 feet from swimming areas or marked diving areas.

3. Follow Safe Loading Practices

Especially if passengers are moving about, a poorly loaded boat could be a capsize hazard. The operator of any vessel has the responsibility to make sure weight and gear are safely apportioned. They must:

  • Ensure passengers and cargo stay within the boat’s capacity. Weather and operating conditions may affect a craft’s safe limits.
  • Distribute weight evenly, considering both passengers and gear.
  • Keep gear low and centered in the boat.
  • In a small boat, warn all passengers to stay seated and avoid making quick, unbalanced movements.

When a boat capsizes, it can be difficult for passengers to get back aboard. They may end up waiting for rescue in the water. Especially when a lake or river is cold and passengers are not wearing life jackets, capsizing can introduce high levels of danger.

4. Take Action to Prevent Fire Hazards

Even on the water, gas-powered boats can catch fire or even explode. Most motorboats are therefore required to carry an approved and non-expired fire extinguisher onboard. Boats with inboard gasoline engines must also have a working backfire flame arrester attached to the carburetor.

For those vessels with an engine or fuel tank that is not directly exposed to the atmosphere, the compartment holding it must have an approved air ventilator to remove explosive gasoline vapors. In Montana, these systems should have at least 2 intake and 1 exhaust ducts. Boat owners should be especially careful to run the ventilator before starting their vessel, as gas vapors can build up over time—even when a boat is just sitting in storage.

5. Know What to Do in Case of Collision

If you are involved in a collision while on a boat, you must not leave the scene of the accident until you have:

  1. helped any injured parties to the extent possible without putting yourself in danger and
  2. given your complete contact and boat identification information to anyone who was injured or whose property was damaged.

You are also required to file an accident report if the collision caused:

  • Any injury that requires medical treatment beyond first aid;
  • Property damage in excess of $100; or
  • The death or disappearance of anyone involved.

Like car accidents, boat accidents can come with serious penalties should an at-fault party try to dodge blame.

Injured in a Boating Accident?

When boat owners and operators don’t take proper precautions, they may cause accidents that affect their passengers and others on the water. Boats and PWC come with inherent dangers, and it’s up to everyone who uses one to recognize the risks and take their part to minimize them.

If you or a loved one was injured in a boat or jet ski accident because another party broke a rule or acted carelessly, you may be able to file a claim to get help with your injuries. Boat accidents can be scary and painful. Let us help you determine your rights if you were hit by another boater.

Call Hoyt & Blewett PLLC at (406) 233-1302 to speak with our experienced boat accident attorneys today. We serve injury victims across Montana.