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Remarks before the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Orlando, Florida
Jim Hall
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Orlando, Florida

Good morning, Commodore Tucker and Auxiliary leaders. Thank you for inviting me. I enjoyed the opportunity to be with you two years ago in Dallas, and it is a pleasure to join you here in Orlando. Over the years, our two organizations have continued to build strong ties, both in responding to accidents and in promoting policies to improve marine and recreational boating safety.

As you may know, for 32 years the National Transportation Safety Board has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites. In establishing the Board in 1967, Congress believed that an independent investigative agency was necessary to provide oversight to DOT modal administrations.

Because the NTSB doesn't regulate or fund transportation operations, we can be impartial and make objective safety recommendations to improve the system. Although recipients have no obligation to comply with our recommendations, historically, over 82 percent have been adopted and implemented primarily through the quality and strength of those recommendations and the force of our advocacy efforts. This process has worked well for three decades and is so well respected around the world that at least a dozen other countries either have a similar system or are working toward one.

Over the years, our recommendations have led to safety improvements such as anti-collision devices on aircraft; smart air bags that won't injure children or small adults following an accident; improved school bus construction standards; excess flow valves to prevent certain pipeline accidents; better emergency exit marking on commuter trains; and lifesaving devices, such as EPIRBs, on commercial fishing vessels. I think you'll agree that the American people get a good return on their investment of the 20 cents per person that it takes to run our agency each year.

When I last spoke to you, I told you about our investigation into the capsizing of a motorboat near Juneau, Alaska, which involved Coast Guard Auxiliary operations. As a result of our investigation, we found:

    · inadequate Coast Guard tactical communications around Juneau, Alaska;

    · confusion on the use of the Auxiliary in hazardous conditions;

    · lack of a policy on the safe removal of passengers from towed vessels;

    · a need for risk assessment training of Auxiliary personnel involved in search and rescue operations; and

    · a need for toxicological testing of Auxiliary personnel involved in marine accidents while operating under Coast Guard orders.

I am pleased to report that the Coast Guard concurred with our findings and is in the process of implementing our recommendations for changes in their operating policies and procedures.

Since I was last with you, the Safety Board has undertaken a number of actions that will undoubtedly impact Coast Guard and Auxiliary operational missions in the future.

I know that I don't have to tell you that the Coast Guard is renowned around the world for its search and rescue (SAR) capabilities. Every day, the men and women of the Coast Guard risk their lives selflessly to save others. To ensure that their lives are not put at more risk than necessary, we look closely at those operations during our investigation. We recently conducted investigations into two boating accidents involving communication watchstanding, a vital part of the Coast Guard's SAR mission.

The first occurred during the early morning hours of December 29, 1997. The 34-foot recreational sailing vessel Morning Dew struck a rock jetty in the shipping channel leading to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. When the boat was found, it was submerged in about 15 feet of water. A brief mayday call from the vessel was received but wasn't recognized as a distress call by a Coast Guard communication watchstander. As a result, no SAR operations were initiated until several hours later. The owner/operator of the vessel and his two sons and a nephew died.

The second accident occurred on June 13, 1998. The boat owner, his 21-year-old nephew, and 18-year-old stepson left Alligator Point Marina, on Apalachee Bay, Florida, in a 20-foot pleasure boat, the Florida Air Specialist. While fishing, they didn't notice that the waves had increased to six feet, and were pouring over the stern. As the boat began to sink, the owner broadcast a brief emergency message, but failed to mention the boat's location. Although local Coast Guard Auxiliary communication watchstanders heard the distress call, the radio watchstanders at CG Station Panama City and CG Group Mobile who monitor the emergency channel, stated that they did not. As a result, SAR operations weren't started until much later when the boat owner's wife called saying that the boat was overdue. The Coast Guard eventually recovered one of the boat's occupants; however, the other two occupants died of exposure.

In each of these accidents, distress calls from the vessels went unheeded because the Coast Guard's communication system is apparently inadequate and ineffective. As we've investigated the accidents, we've looked at issues involving the Coast Guard's lack of modern communication equipment; appropriate watchstander training, experience and skills; and adequate communication watchstanding operational procedures. I noted earlier that in one case, auxiliary personnel were serving as Coast Guard's communications watchstanders. Therefore, the Coast Guard's use of auxiliary personnel to fulfill some of its fundamental responsibilities is also of concern to the Board, especially when such a burdensome responsibility is placed on volunteers.

Many of these issues were discussed at the Safety Board's public hearing on the Morning Dew accident in February. We are currently scheduled to hold a Board Meeting in early October to discuss the staff's report on the sinking of the Morning Dew and their report on the Safety Board's special investigation of Coast Guard SAR communications, which will include a report on the Florida Air accident. Although I haven't yet seen these reports, I anticipate that the staff will make safety recommendations to the Coast Guard on ways to improve their SAR capabilities. I hope all of you will take a serious look at the safety recommendations that are issued following our meeting.

The Safety Board is also investigating an accident that received a lot more media attention than either the Morning Dew or the Florida Air. On May 1st, an amphibious passenger vessel, the Miss Majestic, commonly called a DUKW (duck), sank in Lake Hamilton, near Hot Springs, Arkansas, killing 13 passengers.

This accident has raised a number of issues that the Board will explore during a public forum in the near future. We plan to invite DUKW operators, state and federal authorities with inspection or oversight responsibilities, and the public to discuss safety issues relevant to the craft's operation. These issues include the adequacy of vessel operations, maintenance and repair; vessel seaworthiness; passenger safety; effective state and/or federal certification and inspection policies; and operator licensing and experience.

Before I go on, I do want to acknowledge the Auxiliary's invaluable support to emergency response personnel, accident investigators, and marine salvage personnel following this accident. My staff was highly complimentary of your efforts, and I know that they were greatly appreciated by everyone involved.

Let me now turn to an issue that I think our organizations can most influence - recreational boating safety. As you well know, the number of recreational boats and the speed at which they can operate has increased significantly in recent years, especially with the growth in the popularity of personal watercraft (PWC). Unfortunately, the number of people being killed and injured is also increasing. In 1998, 819 persons were killed in boating accidents in this country. That's over 100 more people than were killed in 1996. In addition, a recent American Red Cross survey indicates that about 355,000 persons are injured in recreational boating accidents annually, more than 40 percent of them required medical treatment beyond first aid.

The true tragedy is that most of these accidents could have been prevented. Since the early 1980s, the Safety Board has made a number of recommendations aimed at reducing boating accidents. In addition, recreational boating safety has been on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements since its inception in 1990. In 1993, we conducted a safety study that examined 407 fatal recreational boating accidents involving 478 fatalities. That study provided us with important insights into alcohol use by boaters as well as the need for personal flotation devices and better boater education. And, in 1998, we published another study, this time focusing on personal watercraft. Despite all of these endeavors, as I noted earlier, accidents continue to occur with increasing frequency.

Our 1993 study highlighted what could only be described as a national scandal. Thirty-seven percent of the vessel operators involved in those fatal accidents were known to have, or presumed to have, consumed alcohol before the accidents. That study, together with earlier NTSB recommendations regarding alcohol-impaired boaters, compelled states, with the exception of Iowa, to adopt improved boating-while-impaired laws.

Yet the problem persists. Just last month, the Safety Board launched a team to investigate a collision between two speedboats on a Minnesota river that killed all five people on board. Autopsies revealed that all five were intoxicated; the drivers' BAC was more than twice the legal limit. Obviously, we either need stricter laws or tighter enforcement of the existing laws.

But, as disturbing as the incidence of alcohol-related accidents is, the minimal use of personal flotation devices (PFDs) by boaters is even more frustrating. Of the 478 fatalities in the accidents examined in our 1993 study, 351 reportedly resulted from drowning. Of those who drowned and for whom information on PFD use was available, 85 percent weren't wearing life jackets. As a result, the Board recommended that states require children to wear PFDs. Although I am pleased that 31 states require the mandatory wearing of life jackets by children of various ages, children are still unprotected in the other 19. This should be unacceptable to every parent and caregiver; and, they should be insisting that this situation be corrected.

Although enforcing BWI and PFD usage laws would probably save most of the lives lost in boating accidents, a far more fundamental problem exists that causes lives to be lost needlessly. Too many recreational boat operators just don't know what they're doing - and as far as the law is concerned - they don't have to.

I know that many of you know that in the US, a recreational boat operator is not required to demonstrate an understanding of the rules of the road or an ability to operate the boat. In fact, about 81 percent of recreational boat operators in our 1993 study sample, for whom this information was available, hadn't taken any type of boating education course. The report also estimated that perhaps as few as seven percent, and certainly no more than 22 percent, of first-time boat operators had taken any type of voluntary boating safety course. Based on this data, the study recommended that the states implement a minimum boating safety program, including a requirement for boater safety education.

Many states have responded favorably to these recommendations. In 1994, Alabama became the first state to enact a comprehensive boating safety law that includes both operator training and licensing requirements. To date, 22 states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that establishes requirements before a person is permitted to operate a recreational boat. Eleven of those states, as well as D.C., have requirements aimed at young boat operators operating the vessel without an adult present. Five states (Alabama, Connecticut, Maryland, Ohio and Vermont) have adopted mandatory education requirements for all recreational boaters and issue certificates that must be available for review when requested by law enforcement personnel. Yet, despite this success, 28 states do not have any requirements for any operator training. It's time that this, too, is corrected.

That said, we all know that successfully completing a safety course doesn't mean that operators have demonstrated their ability to safely operate a vessel. A boat operator can rent or buy a vessel that operates at speeds nearing 70 miles per hour without knowing the basic safety procedures for operating those sophisticated vessels. Although some boating advocates may argue that most boaters would not attempt to operate such high-powered vessels without having received proper training, we're concerned that this option even exists.

Last year, in another safety study, we addressed safety concerns about the fastest growing segment of recreational boating - personal watercraft. PWCs account for about a third of new recreational boating sales and comprise almost 10 percent of all recreational boats in the country. The results were similar to those we found in our 1993 study and, in May 1998, the NTSB issued recommendations to:

    · develop design and controllability standards for PWC;

    · implement standards for PWC rental operations by states; and

    · incorporate information on the safe operation of PWC in all recreational boating courses.

So far, responses to these recommendations have been positive. The Coast Guard and the PWC industry are pursuing a research grant to evaluate "off throttle" technical improvements in the controllability of PWCs and are looking at basic design standards. Fourteen states have implemented standards for PWC rentals. And, 29 states have incorporated safe PWC operations into their recreational boating courses. There's still more work to be done in this area.

As always, if these recommendations and other safety improvements are to be implemented throughout the nation, we need your help. You continue to have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of boaters throughout your States. Take another good look at your state's current recreational boating safety laws. Determine how they can be improved. In some cases, there may not even be a law. Then, work with other boating groups and communicate your concerns to key legislators. Make them recognize the importance of adopting critical boating safety legislation and help them to prepare to move quickly on new legislation. The NTSB stands ready to help you in any way we can.

I want to again thank Commodore Tucker for giving me the opportunity to talk with you this morning. I congratulate all of you on a job well done for the American public. Your voluntary support of Coast Guard missions is exceptional. I look forward to other opportunities for our organizations to work together to make recreational boating safer for all of us who use America's waterways. Keep up good work, and I wish you a very safe and successful year.