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Remarks Before the United States Marine Safety Association, Las Vegas, NV
Mark V. Rosenker
United States Marine Safety Association, Las Vegas, NV

Thank you, Tom, for your kind introduction. Good morning everyone. Judging from your busy program, this is going to be a full and productive 2-day annual gala and conference meeting. Congratulations on the Association's 20th successful year.

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to address your association for two important reasons: First, much of my career has been either as full-time staff or as one who has represented associations similar to yours. I know firsthand how important and valuable your work is, ranging from technical standards development and implementation, equipment and system approvals within the United States and internationally, training, and industry safety awareness. But I also know how your association makes tremendous contributions to the health and vitality of not only the commercial and recreational boating industries, but our national economy as well. The association has been instrumental in accomplishing safety improvements in such areas as, the mandatory use of emergency position indicating radio beacons, life raft and life jacket safety standards, and photo luminescent lighting and signage for emergency exiting. These actions stand as testimony to the strength and effectiveness of your association. Now my second reason is even more important. And that is to have the opportunity to work more closely with the United States Marine Safety Association and its individual corporate members to advance marine and recreational boating safety on our nation's waterways. The Safety Board is pleased to work with an organization that backs up its words with actions.

I have been a recreational boater for more than 20 years and I want you to know that marine and recreational boating safety are two of my top priorities.

Before I go on, I'd like to introduce two of the Safety Board colleagues who are here with me this morning - Tom Doyle, my special assistant, and Bill Gossard of the Office of Safety Recommendations and Accomplishments.

As many of you may know, the National Transportation Safety Board has been the conscience, if you will, of our nation's transportation community for over 36 years. Over the years, the Board's recommendations have led to numerous 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 ship passenger vessels, requirements for mandatory boating safety education, and safety improvements for personal watercraft.

My topic this morning is recreational boating safety because frankly that's where we are together going to make some substantive safety gains in reducing fatalities, injuries, and advance accident prevention.

I'm pleased to report that recreational boating accidents and fatalities have been declining even as the number of recreational boats is increasing. Fatalities have dropped significantly over the past 5 years. Unfortunately, serious injuries have remained rather constant. In 2001, the Coast Guard reports that there were about 13 million recreational boats in the United States - that's approximately a 16 percent increase over the number reported just 10 years earlier - and it's a number both you and I believe will continue to increase in the years to come. Conventional wisdom tells us, however, that the more vessels and operators there are, the greater the chance for increased accidents, unless we, together, continue to improve safety in the recreational boating community.

So with that in mind, I want to focus my comments this evening on four safety areas that, if implemented, will reduce recreational boating fatalities and injuries.

First, we need recreational boat operators who can demonstrate an understanding of boating safety rules and an ability to safely operate their vessel. The Coast Guard reported in 2001 that there were 6,419 recreational boating accidents resulting in 681 fatalities and 4,274 injuries. (As an update, preliminary figures reported by the Coast Guard indicate that in 2002 the fatality numbers will rise to over 707) Nevertheless, in 2001, about 70 percent of those accidents involved factors that could have been controlled by the operator and 80 percent of the fatalities occurred on boats operated by individuals who had not completed a boating safety education course. We also know that the actual number of accidents may even be higher because recreational boating accidents tend to be underreported. There remains much work to be done at the State level. Currently, the Safety Board is seeking action to complete mandatory education requirements for all boaters in 21 States/territory. (The States of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington State, Wisconsin, Wyoming and the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Second, we need to strengthen and enforce boating-under-the-influence laws. The last State, New Mexico, completed action this spring, providing a defined blood alcohol concentration and implied consent provision specifically to boating. Alcohol involvement in recreational boating accidents remains a problem. In 1993, Safety Board studies estimated that a range of between 37 and 76 percent of the operators involved in fatal accidents were known to have consumed alcohol while boating. The most recent reported Coast Guard statistics indicate at least 34 percent of all boating fatalities are alcohol-involved but the Board believes this number is seriously underreported because testing of all fatalities involved in recreational boating accidents are not completed.

Over the past twenty years every state has strengthened provisions of their boating and alcohol laws. However, passing a law does not necessarily prevent individuals from boating while intoxicated. It takes responsible boat owners and operators to heed the laws along with serious enforcement of those laws. And there is the continuing need to focus public attention on alcohol abuse and boating safety.

Third, we need to continue to improve the operational safety of personal watercraft. In our 1998 safety study on PWCs, the Board identified the need for PWC safety standards, including improved design and controllability standards; improved safety instruction for renters; and the incorporation of information on the safe operation of PWCs in all recreational boating courses.

Response to those recommendations has been encouraging. Indeed, 2 of the 3 specific recommendations (mandatory wear of PFDs and inclusion of information on the safe operation of PWC in State boating courses) made to the States have received a 100 percent acceptable compliance rate. The Board remains concerned that comprehensive standards designed specifically to address the safety risks of PWCs have not been completed. However, we have received word that the Society of Automotive Engineers Technical Committee on Personal Watercraft have nearly completed action to release a technical standard to address the off-throttle steering safety issue for model year 2006 craft. Three manufacturers have already taken some action prior to the release of this standard.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we need to take aggressive steps to protect our children when they're on our waterways. By teaching children to be safe passengers, we hope to ensure that they will grow up to be safe boat operators.

The Board has asked states to require the use of PFDs by all children aboard recreational boats. Currently, six states, DC, and three territories still do not require children under age 13 to wear a PFD on state waters. A number of different states, permit a child as young as six or seven, to ride in a recreational vessel without wearing this lifesaving protection. Again, I am pleased to report that at least 3 of these remaining jurisdictions have initiated legislative action (WI, DC, and VA).

States should also 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 vessel that can travel at high speeds without being formally trained and that they demonstrate their ability to safely operate that vessel.

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. By working together, I know we can make a difference in improving boating safety, and thus make boating an even more enjoyable recreation.

In conclusion, this morning I would like a commitment from the United States Marine Safety Association and certainly your members to join with us our efforts to reduce recreational boating fatalities and injuries. We need to set the bar high; and I am willing to work with the United States Marine Safety Association and its membership in spearheading improved commercial and recreational boating safety initiatives. We need your member's assistance at State legislative hearings supporting the use of PFD's by children and mandatory boating education for all boat operators because your members live and work in those states and boat on the same waters. Further, as your Association focuses on new and innovative safety issues whether technical or procedural, please feel free to call Bill, so we stay apprised of your activities. My door is always open, so if you are in Washington, please stop by.

I thank you once again for your kind invitation to provide these remarks to you and also for the opportunity to meet with a membership that truly speaks and acts to advance safety.