Stay safe on the waters: Police emphasize life jacket use, sober boating this summer

With summer here, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Conservation Police urge people to wear life jackets anytime they’re on the water and to only operate boats while sober.

“Life jackets save lives, and the best thing you can do for your friends and loved ones is insist they wear a life jacket anytime they’re in or near the water,” Illinois Conservation Police Lt. Curt Lewis, the state’s boating law administrator, said in a news release from the state. “The best life jacket is the one you wear, whether you’re on a fishing boat, a pontoon, a canoe, a personal watercraft or a paddleboard.”

Illinois law requires that personal floatation devices are available for each person aboard a boat or other watercraft, and everyone must wear one while operating a personal watercraft or jet ski.

Wearing a life jacket is the most important action boaters and paddlers can take to ensure their safety and that of others on board, Lewis said.

In 2023, there were 70 reportable boating accidents on Illinois waters, resulting in 12 fatalities and 37 injuries, according to statistics compiled by the Illinois Conservation Police.

Of the 12 fatalities, eight who died were not wearing life jackets or vests, according to the release.

Prior years’ statistics:

  • 2022: 52 boating accidents with 6 fatalities and 40 injuries
  • 2021: 93 boating accidents with 16 fatalities and 28 injuries
  • 2020: 81 boating accidents with 21 fatalities and 36 injuries
  • 2019: 72 boating accidents with 14 fatalities and 42 injuries

(Annual boating accident statistics are compiled based on the federal fiscal year Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.)

As part of the Illinois Conservation Police boating safety enforcement effort, officers strictly enforce laws regarding operating under the influence for boat operators, according to the release.

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 2023, Illinois Conservation Police officers arrested 72 boaters for OUI, an 11% decrease from the previous year. Previous years’ OUI arrests:

  • 2022: 81 boaters
  • 2021: 65 boaters

Two of the 12 boating-related fatalities in Illinois in 2023 involved alcohol or drug impairment.

IDNR offers free boating safety courses, and the department encourages boaters of all ages to take a course, according to the release.

“With boating season upon us, everyone who heads out to enjoy Illinois’ beautiful lakes and waterways should make safety their first priority,” Cody Gray, safety education program administrator for IDNR, said in the release. “IDNR’s mandatory boating safety classes are free, and what you learn may just save someone’s life.”

Free safety courses are available throughout Illinois, according to the release.

To view the courses available, visit For a fee, online boating safety courses are also available.