Written Testimony of Mark V. Rosenker
Acting Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Senate Committe on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice
Legislature of the Virgin Islands
Senate Bill Number 26-0206-Establishing a Boater Safety
Education Program and Children's Use of Personal Flotation Devices
St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands
February 7, 2006

Chairman Encarnacion and Committee members. Although I cannot be in the United States Virgin Islands, it is a pleasure to discuss the National Transportation Safety Board's studies on recreational boating safety and our recommendations to the Virgin Islands and other States and Territories regarding boater safety education and personal flotation device (PFD) wear 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. Recently, we have investigated a number of serious accidents including the sole State passenger vessel ETHAN ALLEN tragedy in New York State and aviation accidents in Chicago and Miami.

Recreational boating fatalities are very high, even exceeding fatalities in general aviation accidents. In 2004, the States reported to the U.S. Coast Guard that 676 persons were killed and 3,363 persons were seriously injured in boating accidents in this country. Of the 676 fatalities, 484 drowned.

Other information indicates that recreational boating injuries are even higher than the numbers reported to the United States Coast Guard. Information from an American Red Cross survey indicates that more than 355,000 persons are injured from recreational boating accidents annually, and more than 40 percent of these injuries require medical treatment beyond first aid. A study by the Centers for Disease Control, released in 1997, found that as many as 32,000 injuries from personal watercraft alone required medical treatment.

As a result of its concern regarding the number of boating deaths and injuries, and the prospect for increases in these numbers, the Safety Board in 1993 conducted a study of recreational boating accidents and their causes. The Board reviewed information on 407 fatal recreational boating accidents that killed 478 persons, which occurred in 18 States in 1991. This represented about 52 percent of the fatal accidents and deaths in that year.

The Safety Board also reviewed safety studies performed by other organizations and data from the Coast Guard. Further, the Board conducted detailed investigations of three recreational boating accidents in 1992 in which a total of 13 persons died, including 4 children and 2 teenagers.

Before proceeding with the study findings and recommendations, let me share with you one of the recreational boating accidents we investigated.

About 2:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, 2 adult males, one adult female, and 5 children (ages 18 months to 9 years of age) departed a California marina in a 15-foot-long open boat powered by a 70-horsepower outboard motor. The marina operator observed the boating party departing the marina and recalled that the party purchased gas, food, and drinks, including a six-pack of beer.

The 10-mile trip across San Pablo Bay to an island was uneventful. About 5:30 p.m., the boating party departed the island. On the return trip, the boat was heading into the wind and waves, and the trip was rougher than the earlier crossing.

As the boat neared the entrance channel to the river leading back to the marina, the outboard motor stopped because the primary fuel tank ran dry. The fuel line was connected to the reserve tank, but efforts to restart the motor were unsuccessful. With the boat drifting and rolling in choppy waters, one of the adult males moved to the back of the boat to try and remedy the situation, and the stern of the vessel began to sink. The five children were wearing personal flotation devices; the three adults retrieved theirs from a forward locker before the bow went under water.

About 6:00 a.m. the following day, a local fisherman spotted the adult female drifting near the river's entrance about 1 mile from where the boat had sunk. She was rescued, and the Coast Guard was notified. Based on her report, a full-scale search was initiated. By mid-morning, an additional survivor (the 9-year old child) was found, along with the bodies of the other four children and one adult male. All were about 5 miles from the accident site. The surviving child was treated for hypothermia.

A toxicological test of the adult male, who was the boat operator and owner, revealed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.11 percent. The other adult male was never found.

Family members indicated that the boat operator's prior boat usage had been limited to fresh water lakes and rivers. He had no experience under the conditions encountered on the day of the accident, nor was there any record that he had taken any training courses related to boating safety.

The lack of boat operator proficiency evidenced in this accident is typical of the accidents examined for our recreational boating study.

The accident data and case studies examined throughout the study repeatedly suggested that the individuals involved in fatal boating accidents, regardless of their level of experience, operated their vessels in a manner inconsistent with a basic knowledge of the "rules of the road," an understanding of safe boating practices, and proficiency in operating skills.

Unlike general aviation and other motor vehicle operations, an operator of a recreational boat is not required to demonstrate an understanding of safe boating rules or an ability to safely operate the boat. In fact, about 81 percent of recreational boat operators in the study sample, for which information was available, had not taken any type of boating education course. Further, the report estimated that perhaps as few as 7 percent, and certainly no more than 22 percent, of first-time boat operators would have taken some type of voluntary boating safety course.

In 1994, Alabama became the first State to enact a comprehensive operator licensing requirement. The Alabama Boat Safety Reform Act provides for a boating safety examination and an endorsement on the State's vehicle driver's license. New Jersey also has a boat licensing requirement. Connecticut requires that every boat operator in the State complete boating safety education and carry a boating education certificate. In addition, personal watercraft operators must complete additional training and have an endorsement to operate in Connecticut.

At least 33 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have enacted legislation that establishes an education requirement before a person is permitted to operate a recreational boat. Many of these laws were phased in over a period of time in order to make it easier for boaters to comply. In each of these States, a boat operator is issued a certificate that must be made available for review by a law enforcement officer.

The experience of other States has shown that mandatory boater education requirements can make a difference. Let me share two States' success stories:

Connecticut -- A mandatory education requirement was phased in beginning in 1993. All boaters now have completed a boating safety education course. In 1996, Connecticut boating officials reviewed their accident experience and reported that uneducated boaters had five times more accidents than did educated boaters in 1996.

Maryland -- Maryland -- mandatory education program began in 1995. The program includes all recreational boat operators. Maryland officials reported that accidents involving some operators carrying a certificate of boating education declined by 12 percent after the first full year of certification.

In the United States Virgin Islands and other states and Territories without an education requirement, any boat operator can rent or buy a vessel that can operate at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour without demonstrating a knowledge of basic safety rules or skills in operating these sophisticated vessels. Although there are some boating advocates who would argue that most boaters would not attempt to operate such high-powered vessels without having received proper training and demonstrated an ability to operate these vessels, the Safety Board has seen the results of operators without boating education repeatedly involved in serious and fatal accidents. We are concerned that this option exists.

Therefore, the Safety Board recommended in 1993 that the States and the Territories implement a program of minimum boating safety standards to reduce the number and severity of accidents. Such a program should include the requirements for recreational boat operators to demonstrate knowledge of safe boating rules and an ability to safely operate his/her vessel. While successful completion of a course indicates that a person has a knowledge of basic boating safety rules, it does not indicate that the boater has demonstrated an ability to operate a vessel.

In 1998, the Safety Board completed a safety study that reviewed personal watercraft accidents. The results from this study were similar to those of the 1993 study. The Safety Board's analysis of the 1997 State boating accident reports showed that 87 percent of personal watercraft operators for which information was available had received no boating safety instruction. A supplemental Safety Board questionnaire submitted by the 49 States that participated in this study indicated a similar proportion: 84 percent of those involved in accidents had completed no type of boating instruction. Further review of Coast Guard boating statistics for the years 1991 through 1996 found that only 85 percent of boat operators involved in fatal boating accidents for whom information was available had not had any type of boating instruction. In 2004, the United States Coast Guard again stated that approximately 70 percent of all boating fatalities occurred on vessels where the operator had not completed a boating safety education course.

In August 2004, the Safety Board called for a public forum on the issue of the wearing of personal flotation devices (lifejackets). Sixteen major boating organizations representing all facets of the industry participated. One of the strong messages the Safety Board received from this forum was the need for mandatory education programs. Therefore, we believe that the industry, as a whole, is in agreement with the need for sound boating education initiated at the State level.

The failure to use PFDs can have fatal consequences. And, States and Territories 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 2004 boating experience again confirmed the importance of PFD use. According to the U.S. Coast Guard boating accident statistics, nearly 90 percent of the fatalities who drowned in recreational boating accidents n 2004 could have survived if they had taken the simple step of wearing a lifejacket. Drownings accounted for 484, or nearly 72 percent, of the 676 recreational boating fatalities in 2004. PFDs could have prevented an estimated 431 or nearly 90 percent of those fatalities. There is no question that wearing a PFD can save your life.

Currently, 45 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have some type of PFD use requirement for children. The Safety Board would like to see the United States Virgin Islands become the 48 th jurisdiction to do so. The Safety Board considers recreational boating safety and the issue of children in PFDs (lifejackets) so important that we have included this issue on our 2006 "MOST WANTED" transportation safety improvements list, as one of the areas where critical changes are needed to reduce unnecessary loss of life.

The bill before you, Senate Bill 26-0206, provides for a boating safety education program and the use of PFDs for children. It also requires the Territory to establish a program to provide safety instruction at motorboat rental locations including personal watercraft rental locations. Thus, The National Transportation Safety Board is pleased to support Senate Bill 26-0206, as the bill addresses the 2 major Safety Recommendations M-93-1 and M-98-101 issued to the Governor of the United States Virgin Islands

Thank you for providing the National Transportation Safety Board an opportunity to provide written testimony about these important safety initiatives.