Testimony of Honorable Christopher A. Hart
National Transportation Safety Board
Environmental Matters Committee
In Support Of Senate Bill 92
Amending Personal Floatation Device Requirements For Children
April 7, 2010
Good afternoon, Chairman McIntosh, Vice Chairman Malone, Jr. and Members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to present the National Transportation Safety Board’s views on Senate Bill 92 which increases the mandatory age for children to wear personal flotation devices (also known as life jackets).
The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The NTSB cannot mandate implementation of these recommendations. However, in our over 40-year history, NTSB safety recommendations have a more than 80 percent acceptance rate.
Recreational boating fatalities are very high, even exceeding fatalities in general aviation accidents. In 2008, the states reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that 709 persons were killed and more than 3,300 persons were seriously injured in boating accidents in this country. Of the 709 fatalities, over two-thirds drowned and ninety percent were not wearing life jackets. There were 9 boating deaths in Maryland in 2008. In the past 5 years (2004-2008), 58 people died on Maryland’s waters.
Between 2006 and 2008 the number of children who drowned in boating accidents declined by 53 percent. The reduction is likely due, in part, to the nearly universal action by states (48 of 50) to require children to use life jackets. In most states, the law applies to children age 12 and younger.
As a result of its concern regarding the number of boating deaths and injuries, the NTSB in 1993 conducted a study of recreational boating accidents and their causes. The NTSB examined 407 fatal recreational boating accidents, which resulted in 478 fatalities, that occurred in 18 states in 1991. These accidents represented about 52 percent of the accidents and fatalities that occurred that year. We also reviewed U.S. Coast Guard data and studies performed by other organizations. Further, the NTSB investigated three recreational boating accidents from 1992 in which 13 persons died, including 4 children and 2 teenagers. The minimal use of personal flotation devices (PFDs) that we found in our investigations of fatal recreational boating accidents was particularly notable. As a result of this study, the NTSB recommended that state recreational boating safety programs at a minimum include a PFD wear requirement for children.
The failure to use PFDs can have fatal consequences. It is the leading cause of recreational boating drowning fatalities. Of the 478 fatalities that occurred in the accidents examined in our 1993 study, 351 resulted from drowning. Of those who drowned and for whom information on PFD use was available, 85 percent (281) did not wear PFDs. The NTSB reviewed the circumstances of the 281 drownings in which the victims were not wearing a PFD and determined that as many as 238 persons (85 percent) may have survived had they been correctly wearing a PFD. Only a few factors negate the effectiveness of PFDs, most often hypothermia and injury as a result of blunt trauma. These trends have not changed significantly over the years, which lead us to believe that this pattern has not changed.
One accident in Arkansas that the NTSB investigated highlights our concerns. At about 11:30 on a Sunday morning, a 9-person family boarded a family-owned boat at a public boat launching area on the Fourche La Fave River near Perryville, Arkansas. The family, which included a man, a woman, and children ranging in age from 16 months to 14 years, intended to go down the river to fish from the bank. The man and a 12-year-old girl were the only persons on board who could swim.
Although weather conditions were ideal, the boat and the passengers were not adequately prepared for potential problems. The weather was clear and 90 degrees. Visibility was good, and there were only light winds. The 14-foot long aluminum boat was open, flat-bottomed, and not equipped with PFDs. With a 9.9-horsepower outboard motor, the motorboat fell under the Arkansas exemption, which did not require motorboats of less than 10 horsepower to carry PFDs. The passengers, who also did not wear PFDs, sat on four bench seats. At the site of the accident, the river was approximately 80 feet wide, and its depth at the center varied from 9 to 50 feet.
As the boat headed downstream, water splashed on the boy and girl who were sitting in the front seat. They moved rearward, causing the boat to flood. It sank in the middle of the river, in about 14 feet of water, and about 100 feet downstream from the boat launching area. The 12 year-old girl swam to shore, and a 14 year-old girl supported herself in the water by holding onto the bow of the boat, which remained above the surface.
Two fishermen, who arrived at the boat-launching area shortly after the accident, found the 12-year-old on the riverbank and the 14-year-old holding onto the boat. The men entered the water and brought the 14-year-old ashore. One rescuer searched the riverbank for more survivors. He found an unconscious 4-year-old in the water, near the riverbank, in the approximate area of the accident. Although he administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), the child was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital. Officials started a search, and found five other victims that day and one the next day. Five children and two adults died in this one accident. The NTSB concluded that the lack of PFDs contributed to the loss of these seven lives.
Another brief example shows the effectiveness of PFDs. Three men launched a small inflatable raft on the Arkansas River near Swissvale, Colorado. A Colorado State park ranger had spotted the three men at one point. Observing that one rafter was not wearing a PFD, the ranger contacted the men. After determining that the raft carried the correct number of PFDs, the park ranger recommended that the remaining rafter also wear his PFD. The rafter asked if he was legally required to wear a PFD and was told that he was not, whereupon he did not put it on, despite the fact that he could not swim.
After traveling about 2 miles, the men started through a rapid. Their raft was thrown sideways, hit a small rock, and capsized, throwing all three men into the water. Two men wearing PFDs struggled and eventually reached the riverbank. The third man, who had earlier refused to use a PFD, drowned.
I also want to cite a commercial vessel accident that illustrates the need to wear life jackets, the capsizing off the coast of Oregon of the Taki Tooo, a charter fishing boat carrying 17 passengers and 2 crew members. The good news is that 8 of those aboard managed to struggle through 50-degree waters to safety on the shore. The bad news is the other 11 did not and drowned. What was so troubling about this accident is that none of the 8 deceased persons found outside the vessel were wearing PFDs (1 person was found in the vessel and 2 people were not found.) Simple PFD use could have very well saved those 8 lives.
While the Taki Tooo is an extreme accident and was not a recreational boat, it illustrates the range of circumstances where PFDs can make a difference. There are numerous other cases that support the need for PFD wear. A common theme throughout these accidents in which boats capsize is the fact that people do not think to use PFDs until it is too late. And while state and federal laws require most boats to have life jackets on board, they do not work if they are not worn.
Children cannot make the decision to wear life jackets, and therefore it is the responsibility of adults to make sure children wear their life jackets. Unfortunately, some adults do not take such action, at which point it is the state’s responsibility to protect vulnerable children. This is why the NTSB has recommended that the states consider minimum standards to reduce the number and severity of boating accidents. Requiring children to wear PFDs could, over time, result in more adults who wear PFDs.
Currently, 48 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have some type of PFD use requirement for children. The NTSB considers recreational boating safety and the issue of children in life jackets so important that we have included this issue on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements as one of the areas where critical changes are needed to reduce unnecessary loss of life.
Senate Bill 92 raises the age for Maryland’s current life jacket wear requirement from under age 7 to under age 13. The NTSB, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all support requiring children ages 12 and under (under age 13) to wear PFDs. So also do organizations representing recreational boaters and all segments of the boating community. Enacting this legislation would be an important step toward making boating safer for the children of Maryland, as well as providing a more uniform national program for the safety of all children.
We only need to be reminded of the importance of the need for children to wear life jackets by the tragic accident in July 2009 in which an 11-year child not wearing a life jacket drowned in the Sassafras River. This tragedy may have been avoided had Maryland required PFDs for children under age 13. Therefore, the NTSB strongly supports Senate Bill 92.
Thank you for providing the NTSB an opportunity to testify about this important safety initiative.