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Remarks Before the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association Conference, St. Pete Beach, FL
Mark V. Rosenker
Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association Conference, St. Pete Beach, FL

Thank you, Bernice, for your kind introduction. And thank you all for your patience. Yesterday when I was originally scheduled to speak to you, I was on the west coast with a team of NTSB investigators who are continuing to investigate a capsizing accident that I'll tell you more about shortly. First let me tell you that the National Transportation Safety Board is pleased to work with the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association to advance boating safety on our nation's waterways.

This is my fourth address on boating safety in a little more than two months on the Board. I am focusing my time on this issue because of my continuing commitment to water safety and the great potential to save lives. You may have heard that I've been a recreational boater and have more than 20 years of sailing experience.

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, 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 our nation's 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) 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.

Bernice has asked me to focus on a couple of questions of particular interest to your association. First, what are the overall goals and objectives of the current National Transportation Safety Board, since President Bush recently appointed our 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 boating safety?

First, we're planning on having the five Board Members become much more personally involved in advancing the Board's safety recommendations. The House of Representatives just 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. This became even clearer to the new board members when we received a staff briefing on the Board's "most wanted" program. In the "most wanted" program, which has been in place for a number of years, the Board highlights recommendations that need to be implemented because of their great potential to improve safety. Many of the Board's most important recommendations have taken longer to implement than safety would dictate, and some others have unfortunately languished for a number of years. This Board expects to seek conclusive and timely action on these important safety recommendations.

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. In the next few weeks, the Board members will divide up the 50 states, 10 per Board member. Working closely with the advocacy staff, the Board will actively address a series of important state safety recommendations for such critical issues as hard-core drunk drivers, child safety, and recreational boating safety - to mention just a few.

For many years, the Safety Board has recognized the role of personal flotation devices, or life jackets, in marine safety. For example, the Safety Board recently investigated an accident in which a 31-foot wooden tour boat sank in Everglades National Park 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 2 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. I'm going to return to this issue of PFDs for children later.

But now let me talk about the accident that the Safety Board is currently investigating that has received wide public attention. Last Saturday, June 14, the TAKI TOOO, a 32-foot small 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 reportedly had 19 persons on board. None of the 9 victims whose bodies have been found was wearing a PFD.

Unfortunately, this accident is reminiscent of a similar accident that occurred in 1976 near Astoria, Oregon, not far from the scene of the current accident. The PEARL C, a small passenger vessel, turned over, flooded, and sank while being towed across the Columbia River Bar. In that accident, of the 10 persons on board, only two survived. As a result of its investigation of this accident, the Safety Board issued a recommendation that the Coast Guard "require the operators of inspected charter boats to give instructions to their passengers in the location and use of personal flotation devices before getting under way and to both notify the Coast Guard of the situation and distribute these devices to their passengers before crossing a bar or waterway when conditions are determined by the Coast Guard to be hazardous."

In the late 1990s, the Coast Guard issued regulations regarding the wearing of PFDs, which state, "The master of a vessel shall require passengers to don life jackets when possible hazardous conditions exist, including, but not limited to: when transiting hazardous bars and inlets ." The Coast Guard has stated that the application of this requirement is subject to the vessel master's discretion.

All of the details of last week's accident won't be known for some time. Our investigative team is still on scene interviewing witnesses and examining vessel wreckage. The on-scene investigation is expected to go on for several more days and it will be months before we issue a report. However, 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. 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.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we need to take aggressive steps to protect our children when they're on our waterways. The Board asked the states in 1993 to consider requiring the use of PFDs by children aboard recreational boats.

Between 1995 and 1998, according to the Coast Guard, 105 children died in the water, 66 of them by drowning. By late 1999, 36 states had required children to wear PFDs while aboard recreational vessels. However, the requirements were not consistent nationwide. A new federal 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.

Currently six states (Colorado enacted a law just last month) and three territories still do not require children under age 13 to wear a PFD on state waters. I am pleased to report that Hawaii, Indiana, and the District of Columbia have actions under way to meet the Board's recommendation. Nevertheless, a number of states 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.

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. As we continue to work together, we can continue to make a difference in the lives of families across America who enjoy recreational boating.

The Western States Boating Administrators Association recently 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.

I again thank PFDMA for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today. I congratulate all of you for your hard work and your efforts to improve boating safety by providing safe, comfortable, and technically improved PFDs. I also want to challenge you, not only to continue to improve PFDs, but to actively promote their use. When I drive down the highway, I see billboards telling me to "buckle up." It has taken years for the public to accept this message, but now fully 75 percent use seatbelts. I would like to challenge you to get boaters to use PFDs, the same way we saw people being urged to use seatbelts in cars. PFDs are a way to save lives in boating accidents, and the Safety Board is committed to working with you to prevent accidents and save lives.