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International Boating and Water Safety Summit 2000, Las Vegas, Nevada
Jim Hall
International Boating and Water Safety Summit 2000, Las Vegas, Nevada

Thank you, Barb, for your kind introduction. Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here today. I especially appreciate the opportunity to be here with Lu Christie of the National Water Safety Congress and Larry Innis of the National Safe Boating Council. Over the years, the National Transportation Safety Board worked together with both of your organizations to advance recreational boating safety on our nation's waterways.

I also want to welcome the Board of the National Aquatics Council - I understand this is the first time you've participated in this event - I hope you'll be back for many more. I also want to congratulate everyone involved in the planning and conducting this summit.

Increasing international cooperation on recreational boating safety issues is important and gatherings such as this gives everyone involved the opportunity to share experiences and exchange information and ideas. In fact, I understand that there are more than 500 individuals attending this year.

Before I go on, let me introduce the Safety Board employees who are here with me today - Barry Sweedler, Director, Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments, and Bill Gossard of his staff, as well as Jamie Pericola of my staff.

As many of you may know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident scenes for more than 30 years. In 1967, Congress established the independent Safety Board to investigate accidents, make recommendations to ensure that similar accidents don't reoccur, and provide safety oversight of the transportation industry and the regulatory agencies.

Because we don't regulate or fund transportation operations, we can be impartial and make objective safety recommendations. However, agencies and organizations don't have to adopt or implement our recommendations. Because they're not mandatory, the recommendations must stand on their own merit. As a result of both the quality and strength of those recommendations and our advocacy efforts to encourage their acceptance by the transportation community, more than 82 percent have been adopted.

Over the years, the Board's recommendations have led to many maritime and recreational boating safety improvements. For example, emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) for fishing vessels, improved fire safety equipment and procedures for cruise passenger vessels, mandatory use of personal flotation devices, and requirements for mandatory boating safety education.

Recreational boating safety, the subject that brings us here today, has been on the Board's "Most Wanted" list of safety improvements since the list's inception in 1990. It was placed on the "Most Wanted" list to focus attention on the issue and to highlight the need to do more to prevent the loss of life and injuries in recreational boating.

We're all here today because we know that more needs to be done to enhance the safety on our waterways - waterways that are quickly becoming as congested and many times as deadly as our roadways. In 1998, the Coast Guard reported that there were more than 12 million recreational boats in the United States - that's a 20 percent increase over the number reported just 10 years earlier - and it's a number that continue to increase in the years to come - further crowding our finite system of waterways.

With that in mind, I want to focus my comments today on what needs be done now to reduce recreational boating fatalities and injuries now and in the future.

First, we need mandatory education and operator licensing.

Recreational boat operators must be able to demonstrate an understanding of boating safety rules and an ability to safely operate their vessel. The Coast Guard reported that there were 8,061 recreational boating accidents in 1998 with 815 fatalities and 4,612 injuries. About 73 percent of those accidents involved operator controllable factors. Yet, 88 percent of the fatalities occurred on boats operated by individuals who had not completed a boating safety education course.

NTSB safety studies confirm the Coast Guard's statistics that more than 80 percent of recreational boat operators involved in fatal boating accidents have not taken any type of boating education course. As a result one of those studies, in 1993, the Safety Board recommended that state boating safety programs have boating safety education as a component.

Twelve states (Alabama, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland, Ohio, Mississippi, Texas, Oregon, Florida, Delaware, West Virginia, and Vermont) have instituted boating safety educational requirements and each issues a certificate that operators must make available to law enforcement personnel. Another 11 states and the District of Columbia have established some form of certification requirement for children. Granted, there are various grandfather provisions and certification requirements do not necessarily apply to every boater, but at least these states have taken an important first step.

But that leaves 27 states without any requirements for operator training. It's been seven years since the Board made our first recommendation - it's time for these states to protect their residents and those who use their waterways by establishing mandatory boating safety education and licensing.

Second, we need to strengthen and enforce boating-under-the-influence laws.

Alcohol involvement in recreational boating accidents remains a national tragedy. In 1983, and again in 1993, NTSB safety studies estimated that at least 37 percent of the operators involved in fatal accidents were known to have or presumed to have, consumed alcohol before their accidents. The 1998 Coast Guard statistics indicated that alcohol was involved in 27 percent of all boating fatalities.

As a result of the Board's studies and earlier recommendations, 46 states have strengthened their boating-under-the-influence laws. In fact, earlier this month, Iowa finally enacted its boating while intoxicated law - after trying for nine years. Now, only New Mexico does not have a law with a defined BAC and/or a chemical test requirement specific to boating operators.

However, passing a law does not necessarily prevent individuals from boating while intoxicated. It takes responsible boat operators and passengers to heed the laws and, failing that, strong enforcement of those laws. Last July, the Safety Board launched a team to investigate a collision between two speedboats on a Minnesota river that killed all five people on board the vessels. Autopsies revealed that all five were intoxicated. Later in the conference, you'll hear more about that accident from Minnesota's Washington County Sheriff's Department will be reporting more on this accident. But, clearly, the time has come to enforce existing laws - and, if need be, strengthen those already on the books.

Third, we need 100 percent usage of personal flotation devices (PFDs) by everyone on board a recreational boat.

The Board's 1993 study on recreational boating safety indicated that 85 percent of those who drowned in a boating accident, and for whom information was available, were not wearing PFDs. The Coast Guard's 1998 statistics showed that 574, of the 815 who died, drowned. And, they estimate that PFDs could have saved 509 of them. I can think of no more persuasive argument for requiring their use. I was pleased to see that the theme of this year's joint Canadian/US Safe Boating Campaign is "Boat Smart from the Start: Wear Your Life Jackets."

Although personal watercraft (PWC) are the only type of recreational vessel for which the leading cause of death is not drowning, our 1998 study on PWC safety confirmed the importance of wearing PFDs on board those craft as well. In fact, the report showed that 97 percent of the PWC operators in the Board's study reportedly were wearing a PFD.

Fourth, we need to improve the operational safety of PWCs. In that 1998 safety study on PWCs, the Board also issued recommendations urging the need for PWC safety standards including improved design and controllability standards; improved safety instruction at rental locations for renters of PWCs; and the incorporation of information on the safe operation of PWCs in all recreational boating courses.

Response to those recommendations has been encouraging. The Coast Guard and the industry are working on performance standards to address technical improvements in the controllability of personal watercraft. Other technological improvements to personal watercraft will also make our waterways less dangerous.

For example, SEA DOO and Orbital "Learning Key" technology recently announced a safety feature that will enable parents and rental operators to limit the speed at which children or first-time riders can operate a PWC. Limiting the speed to no more than 35 miles per hour, will allow novice operators to learn the operating characteristics of a PWC before they can travel at faster speeds.

To date, 36 states have incorporated safe PWC operations into their recreational boating safety courses and another six states are considering action. In addition, 18 states have implemented requirements for safety instruction training of rental operators and another 10 states have indicated that they are considering action.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we need to take aggressive steps to protect our children when they're on our waterways.

About 16 months ago, I focused much of the Board's resources on examining how we can improve child transportation safety in all modes. We began that examination with the number one killer of our children - our nation's highways. But, children are also being killed and injured on our waterways and it's time to provide them more protection. Last February, at the Miami Boat Show, I called upon every state to immediately take four actions to improve the safety of our children on our waterways. · They should require the use of PFDs by all children aboard recreational boats. Currently 14 states, the District of Columbia and three territories do not require children age 12 and under to wear a PFD. Some states, such as Florida and California, permit a child as young as six or seven respectively to be in a recreational vessel without this lifesaving protection. As I mentioned earlier, the Safety Board believes that this lifesaving protection should be uniformly applied in all states. And, although we believe that everyone should wear a PFD while on the water - at a minimum we must require that protection for children. · They should require the use of PFDs by all children when they're on a PWC. There are several states without any requirement for children; and in many states the age requirement is much too low. · They should require boating education for children who are allowed to operate high-powered vessels. It just doesn't make sense that teenagers and young children are permitted to operate a vehicle that can travel at high speeds without being properly trained and able to demonstrate their ability to safely operate that vessel. · And, they should require training for any child who rents a PWC. Some states permit children as young as 12 to rent these vessels.

The bottom line is that we must put our children first when it comes to safety. And, by putting them first, we make recreational boating safer for them and for everyone who wants to enjoy our nation's waterways.

I hope you'll all actively support all of these measures to make recreational boating safer. By working together, we can continue to make a difference in the lives of families across America. But, in order to do that, recreational boating safety initiatives must continue to receive adequate funding and support at both the state and federal level.

I want to again thank Lu and Larry for giving me the opportunity to talk to you this morning. I congratulate all of you for your hard work and your efforts to improve recreational boating safety. Keep up the good work, and I wish you all a very successful conference.