Remarks of Mark V. Rosenker
Vice Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
Canadian Safe Boating Council Symposium
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
September 26, 2003
Thank you, John, for your kind introduction. Also, my thanks to the Board of the Canadian Safe Boating Council for your kind invitation asking the National Transportation Safety Board to participate in your discussions on mandatory PFD wear at this symposium. First let me tell you that the Safety Board is pleased to work with the Boating Council to advance boating safety in North America because your actions can and do impact efforts underway in the United States.
Before I go on, let me introduce a couple of folks from the Board here with me today. My Special Assistant Tom Doyle and Bill Gossard of the Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments. Many of you already know Bill, and if I leave any question unanswered, if you need more information on recreational boating safety matters in the US, or even if you'd like to arrange a visit to the Board's Headquarters, Bill can take care of it.
For over 36 years, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the conscience, if you will, of the United States' transportation community. Throughout those years, the Board's recommendations have led to a number of significant maritime and recreational boating safety improvements. These include emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) and immersion suits for fishing vessels, improved fire safety equipment and procedures for cruise ships, mandatory use of personal flotation devices for children, requirements for mandatory boating safety education, and safety improvements for personal watercraft.
Today, I thought I would focus on a couple of areas that would be of interest to your Council. First, many of you may or may not know much about the workings of the Board so I thought I would provide some of the goals and objectives of the independent Safety Board, since President Bush recently appointed a new Chairman Ellen Engleman, me as Vice Chairman, and new Board Member Dick Healing. And second, what is the current status some of the Board's recommendations to improve recreational boating safety.
First, we're planning on having the five appointed Board Members become much more personally involved in advancing the Board's safety recommendations. The US House of Representatives recently unanimously approved a four-year reauthorization bill for the Safety Board that advocated the need to implement the Board's safety recommendations at both the state and the federal level. In order to emphasize priority safety needs, the Board has used a priority list called the "most wanted" program. This successful program focuses the Board's attention on recommendations that need to be implemented because of their great potential to improve safety. This Board expects to seek conclusive and timely action on these important safety recommendations. Recreational boating safety is on the Board's "most wanted" list as we seek PFD wear by children, mandatory boating safety education, and an operator license to reduce fatalities, injuries, and advance accident prevention.
Second, the Board Members all agree that the NTSB's role in safety advocacy at the state and local level must be strengthened. The Board has a dedicated professional staff working on many vital safety issues at the state level. Bill, as you are aware, is the Board's point man on recreational boating safety and has done a yeoman's job at advancing this safety area over the years. Now, the Board members have divided up the 50 states, 10 per Board member. Working closely with the advocacy staff, the Board will actively address these important state safety recommendations for such critical issues as hard-core drunk drivers, child safety, and, of course, recreational boating safety - to mention just a few.
For many years, the Safety Board has recognized the critical role of personal flotation devices, or life jackets, in marine and recreational boating safety. For example, the Safety Board recently investigated an accident in which a 31-foot wooden tour boat sank in Everglades National Park, Florida with 33 passengers on board. None of the passengers had time to put on a PFD before the boat sank in about 11 feet of water. All of the passengers were rescued by nearby boats. Luckily for two passengers who couldn't swim, part of the sunken boat remained above water, and they were able to hang onto it until they were rescued.
In the course of its investigation, the Safety Board discovered that on other occasions, the company took large groups of school children on boat tours of the Everglades. On those trips, no one made sure the boats had a child-size PFD for every child on board, as required by federal regulations. The tour boat company operated as a concession of the National Park Service. The NTSB sent a recommendation 5 months ago to the National Park Service urging it to regularly verify that its tour boat concessionaires carry an appropriately sized PFD for every child on board. The Park Service has already responded favorably to the NTSB's recommendation. I'm going to return to this issue of PFDs for children later.
But now let me talk about an accident that the Safety Board is currently investigating that has received wide public attention, and much of that attention focused on the issue of PFD use. On June 14, the TAKI-TOOO, a 32-foot small charter passenger vessel, capsized while crossing the bar at Tillamook Bay, on the Oregon coast. Wearing a PFD may have made the difference between life and death in this accident. The vessel had 19 persons on board. Eight of the 9 victims whose bodies have been found were not wearing PFDs. Two persons remain missing and presumed drowned; they also did not have lifejackets easily available to them.
Clearly, the investigation will look into all aspects of the accident and will certainly look closely at the role life jackets played in survival.
Although the accidents I've told you about involved commercial vessels, the use of PFDs on recreational boats I believe is even more critical. I believe we must increase the number of recreational boaters who wear PFDs. Few other safety devices are so clearly effective. The Coast Guard reported that in 2001, there were 6,419 serious recreational boating accidents resulting in 681 fatalities and 4,274 injuries. The Coast Guard's 2001 statistics also showed that 497 or 73 percent of the boaters who died had drowned. PFDs could have prevented an estimated 84 percent or 417 of those fatalities. We have just learned that the fatality figures for 2002 are more dramatic as we have lost at least 750 of our citizens. The reality is that life jackets in plastic wrappers, buried in cabins or other inaccessible locations, provide little safety value when an emergency arises.
In the US we have taken aggressive steps to protect our children when they're on our waterways. The Board asked the states in 1993, as the result of its national study, to consider requiring children to use PFDs aboard recreational boats.
Between 1995 and 1998, according to the Coast Guard, 105 children died in the water, 66 of them by drowning; by 2001 another 47 children had died. A new Coast Guard regulation was put into effect on December 23, 2002. The new rule requires all children under 13 to wear Coast Guard-approved PFDs while they are on the deck of a recreational boat that is under way on federal waters. However, this regulation does not apply on state waters, and the Coast Guard rule only applies to states with no state PFD requirement for children.
Currently six states, the District of Columbia, and three territories still do not require children under age 13 to wear a PFD on state waters. I am pleased to report that the States of Wisconsin and Virginia have introduced legislative initiatives as well as the District of Columbia has commenced a legislative proposal to meet the Board's recommendation. However, we are not happy with a number of states that permit a child as young as six or seven to ride in a recreational vessel without wearing this lifesaving protection. I believe these age requirements are too low and we will seek amendment to these state laws.
In May 2003, the Western States Boating Administrators Association (15 States/ territories) forwarded a resolution to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators to develop a model act requiring persons to wear PFDs on all recreational vessels of 21 feet and under. The Board will be working with the States to ensure that PFDs are required for children and to convince adults of the value of wearing PFDs for their own safety.
In conclusion, the Safety Board will watch very closely the actions taken in Canada, as the result of your in-depth review of mandatory PFD wear discussed at this groundbreaking symposium. I appreciate the thorough and detailed effort taken by the Canadian Safe Boating Council in producing this monumental and critical report.
I again thank the Council for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today. I congratulate all of you for your hard work and your efforts to improve recreational boating safety. The Safety Board looks forward to a continued working relationship with the Council and is committed to working with you to prevent accidents and save lives whether in Canada or the US. I congratulate you all for your vision, your dedication, and for your hard work on a difficult, timely and life-saving safety issue.