Testimony of Richard F. Healing
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee
Virginia General Assembly
on
S.B. 554 - Personal Flotation Device Use by Children
Richmond, Virginia
January 26, 2004


Good morning, Chairman Hawkins and members of the Committee. It is a pleasure to be here in Richmond today to discuss the National Transportation Safety Board's recreational boating safety recommendation addressing the use of personal flotation devices for children.

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 Safety Board has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. In our 34-year history, more than 80 percent of our recommendations have been adopted by organizations and government bodies in a position to effect improvements in transportation safety.

Recreational boating result in the greatest number of transportation fatalities after highway accidents, even exceeding fatalities from aviation accidents. In 2002, 750 persons were killed in boating accidents in this country. An American Red Cross survey indicates that more than 355,000 persons are injured annually from recreational boating accidents, and more than 40 percent of the injuries require medical treatment beyond first aid. The number of recreational boats and the speed at which they operate have increased in recent years.

As a result of its concern regarding the number of boating deaths and injuries, the Safety Board in 1993 conducted a study of recreational boating accidents and their causes. Examining recreational boating accidents that occurred in 18 States in 1991, the Board reviewed information on 407 fatal recreational boating accidents, which resulted in 478 fatalities. These accidents represented about 52 percent of the accidents and about 52 percent of the fatalities that occurred in 1991. The Safety Board also reviewed U.S. Coast Guard data and studies performed by other organizations. Further, the Board 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.

Today I want to discuss issues that pertain to PFD use. First, failure to use PFDs can have fatal consequences. And second, states should require greater use of PFDs, especially among children.

Failure to use PFDs 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 Safety Board 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 can negate the effectiveness of PFDs, most often hypothermia and injury as a result of blunt trauma force. The U.S. Coast Guard's most recently released 2002 statistics again confirmed the importance of PFD use; nearly 84 percent of the fatalities who drowned in recreational boating accidents in 2002 could have survived if they had taken the simple step of wearing a lifejacket. For the record, there were 750 recreational boating fatalities in 2002 of which 524, or nearly 70 percent of the boaters drowned. PFDs could have prevented an estimated 440 or 84 percent of those fatalities. There is no question that wearing a PFD can save your life.

One accident in Arkansas that the Safety Board investigated highlights the Board's 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 in one of the 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 Safety Board's investigation of this accident 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.

At this point I would like to digress to a commercial vessel accident that has gotten a lot of media attention. The accident I am referring to is 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 bravely managed struggle through 50-degree waters to safety on the shore. The bad news is the other 11 did not and were 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 have not been 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, there are numerous cases that support the need for PFD wear. State and federal laws require that all boats have life jackets on board. The problem is that they do not work if no one is wearing them. As with many accidents in which boats capsize, people don't think to put them on until it's too late. This is why the NTSB has recommended that the States consider minimum standards to reduce the number and severity of boating accidents PFD use by children mandatory. Logically requiring children to wear PFDs could, over time, result in more adults who wear PFDs, such as occurred with the use of child safety seats and safety belts in automobiles. Forty-three States and Puerto Rico currently have some type of PFD use requirement for children. The Safety Board would like to see Virginia become the 44th State to do so. The Safety Board considers recreational boating safety and the issue of children in PFDs (life jackets) so important that we have included this issue on our "Most Wanted" transportation safety improvements list as one of the areas where critical changes are needed to reduce unnecessary loss of life. I have provided to each Committee member a copy of the Board's abstract on the "Most Wanted" safety issues.

Virginia currently requires water skiers and personal watercraft users to wear PFDs. Senate Bill 554, the measure before you, would require children age 12 or younger to wear a PFD while on vessels less than 21 feet. The proposed section would not apply if the recreational vessel is moored or anchored or to a child who is below deck or in an enclosed cabin. The Safety Board finds SB 554 to be in line with other States' initiatives in this safety area. The U.S. Coast Guard, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, and the American Academy of Pediatrics support children age 12 and under wearing PFDs (life jackets). Enacting this legislation would be an important step toward making boating safer for the children of Virginia, as well as providing a more uniform national program for the safety of all children.

One final point of interest for your review as you consider this bill, the United States Coast Guard has contracted with JSI Research & Training Institute to track personal flotation wear rates for the past 5 years. In 2002, the JSI reports that the only age category where there is significant improvement in wear rates for life jackets is for children ages 12 and under. This improvement JSI reports is most likely because of publicity around laws for mandatory PFD use for this age group began to make an impact from 2000 on.

Thank you for providing the National Transportation Safety Board an opportunity to testify about this important safety initiative. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.