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Remarks at the International Summit on Approval of Life and Fire Safety Systems and Equipment, Miami Beach, Florida, February 14, 2005
Ellen Engleman Conners
International Summit on Approval of Life and Fire Safety Systems and Equipment, Miami Beach, Florida

Good morning, Executive Director Tom Thompson and our international guests at this summit as you address a number of important safety systems and safety equipment requirements for worldwide application. It is a pleasure to be here in Miami Beach to welcome you and to discuss the National Transportation Safety Board's recreational boating safety recommendation addressing the use of personal flotation devices for children.

The Safety Board believes that prestigious summits such as we are involved in today are vital in improving the worldwide application of uniform and consistent standards for safety systems and equipment. As the world shrinks because of great improvements in speedy delivery of products and services from country to country it is critical that safety systems and safety equipment be designed and manufactured to certain safety standards. Those safety standards, which are often minimum standards, must provide those who use such products the knowledge that the safety system or equipment will function as intended. The products and safety equipment addressed at this summit are used in both the commercial and the recreational marine environments and therefore it is quite critical that safety always be at the forefront in decisions made by manufacturers and countries so that the public can be assured that these products are as safe as possible. I believe that the intent of this Summit is to address this concern.

I was very pleased yesterday evening to meet with many of you. I understand that a number of major international organizations are represented here during this conference including the International Maritime Organization, the European Union, the European Maritime Safety Agency, Transport Canada, and the International Standards Organization, to name a few.

Likewise, the Safety Board is involved in the international arena through the International Transportation Safety Association (ITSA). ITSA is a 10-year old organization of 11 independent accident investigation agencies. We are meeting next week in Washington, DC to discuss significant recent accidents and the lessons learned from those investigations. We, of course, often look into the safety systems and safety equipment involved in the accident sequence so I have great interest in your program.

Now I would like to turn my discussion to recreational boating safety. Recreational boating results in the greatest number of transportation fatalities after highway accidents, even exceeding fatalities from aviation accidents. In 2003, 703 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 numbers 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.

The failure to use PFDs can have fatal consequences.

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 2003 boating experience again confirmed the importance of PFD use. According to U.S. Coast Guard boating accident statistics, nearly 86 percent of the people who drowned in recreational boating accidents in 2003 could have survived if they had taken the simple step of wearing a lifejacket. Drownings accounted for 481, or nearly 68 percent, of the 703 recreational boating fatalities in 2003. PFDs could have prevented an estimated 416 or 86 percent of those fatalities. There is no question that wearing a PFD can save your life.

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 managed to 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, it further illustrates the range of circumstances where PFDs can make a difference. 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 Safety Board has recommended that the States consider minimum standards to reduce the number and severity of boating accidents PFD use by children mandatory. 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.

Currently, 44 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have some type of PFD use requirement for children. 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 2004-2005 "Most Wanted" transportation safety improvements list as one of the areas where critical changes are needed to reduce unnecessary loss of life.

The United States Coast Guard has contracted with JSI Research & Training Institute to track personal flotation wear rates for the past 5 years. JSI reports that in 2002 children ages 12 and under was the only age category in which there was significant improvement in wear rates for life jackets. This improvement that JSI reports most likely results from publicity around mandatory PFD use laws for this age group that have been largely adopted since 2000.

In conclusion, I would ask that USMSA, the IMO, the EU and the European Maritime Safety Agency, Transport Canada and other world bodies to review the application of mandatory lifejacket wear for children. I believe that this is one area where the world can agree that action should be taken. I would like to thank all of you for the kind invitation to open this important summit.