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Remarks before the 2003 International Boating and Water Safety Summit, Las Vegas, NV
Mark V. Rosenker
International Boating and Water Safety Summit, Las Vegas, NV

Thank you, Ed, for your kind introduction. Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here today. I want to recognize Ron Riberich of the National Water Safety Congress and Bill Griswold of the National Safe Boating Council. The National Transportation Safety Board is pleased to work with both of your organizations to advance recreational boating safety on our nation's waterways.

I also want to acknowledge the State of Nevada and Fred Messmann from the Nevada Division of Wildlife, for hosting this summit. Judging from the program, this is going to be a full and rewarding week. Everyone involved in the planning and conduct of this summit should be proud.

I am honored that President Bush has appointed me to be both a Member and Vice Chairman of the Safety Board. This is my first speech as part of the Board, since I have only been in office for less than a month, but I am here because of my commitment to water safety and the great potential to save lives.

I am a recreational boater with nearly 20 years experience sailing my own and others' vessels. Additionally, I have worked on a number of national safety programs including seat belt safety and motorcycle safety, including helmet use.

Before I go on, let me introduce the Safety Board employee who is here with me today--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. In 1967, Congress established the independent Safety Board to investigate accidents, make recommendations to ensure that similar accidents don't recur, and provide safety oversight of the transportation industry and the regulatory agencies.

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, mandatory use of personal flotation devices for children, requirements for mandatory boating safety education, and safety improvements for personal watercraft safety.

Fortunately, recreational boating accidents and fatalities have been declining even as the number of recreational boats is increasing. Fatalities have dropped over the past 5 years from 821 in 1997 to 681 in 2001. Unfortunately, serious injuries have remained rather constant. We're all here today, however, because we know that more needs to be done to enhance the safety on our waterways -- waterways that continue to be more and more congested.

In 2001, the Coast Guard reports that there were more than 12.87 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 that will continue to increase in the years to come, further crowding our finite system of waterways. Generally, more vessels and operators will result in increased accidents, unless we improve safety in the recreational boating system. In addition, many boating safety resources are confronted with the dual mission of security and safety thrust upon them as the result of 9/11.

With that in mind, I want to focus my comments today on five safety recommendations 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. 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. The actual number of accidents may be higher because recreational boating accidents tend to be underreported.

The Coast Guard's statistics are consistent with the Safety Board's 1993 research that found a majority of recreational boat operators involved in fatal boating accidents have not taken any type of boating education course. In 1993, the Safety Board recommended and still advocates that state boating safety programs establish minimum standards, such as requiring safety education or operator licensing.

Currently, 19 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have established education programs that meet the intent of the Board's recommendation. Alabama continues to be the one leader with a boat operator's license requirement. Operator licensing can also provide a good way to identify who is boating on our waters.

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

Alcohol involvement in recreational boating accidents remains a problem. In 1983, and again in 1993, Safety Board studies estimated that between 37 and 75 percent of the operators involved in fatal accidents were known to have, or were presumed to have, consumed alcohol before their accidents. The 2001 Coast Guard statistics indicated that alcohol was involved in 34 percent of all boating fatalities, up 8 percent from 1999.

Since 1983, every state has strengthened provisions of their boating and alcohol laws. Congratulations to the State of New Mexico, where this year after overcoming serious objections, a bill providing a defined blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and implied consent was enacted by the legislature and signed by the Governor. Every state now has a defined blood alcohol concentration specific to recreational boating. Only seven states (California, Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Washington State, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) do not have an implied consent provision, and we are committed to working with those states.

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. In 1999, 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. The Board concluded that the probable cause of the accident was alcohol impairment, which led the two boat operators to engage in high-speed operations at night, and impaired their ability to determine the movements of other vessels and take appropriate action to avoid a collision. Clearly, alcohol and boating do not mix, and enforcement of boating under the influence laws remains a key priority.

Third, we must increase the number of recreational boaters who wear personal flotation devices (PFDs) 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 2001 statistics showed, 8 years later, that 73 percent of the boaters who died, drowned, and they estimate that PFDs could have saved 84 percent of them. Few other safety devices are so effective. I am pleased to see that PFD use is the theme of this year's joint Canadian/U.S. North American Safe Boating Campaign, "Boat Smart. Boat Safe: Wear It."

Fourth, we need to continue to improve the operational safety of personal watercraft (PWCs). 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 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. However, the Board remains concerned that comprehensive standards designed specifically to address the safety risks of PWC have not been completed.

To date, every state has incorporated the safe operation of PWC into their recreational boating safety courses. In addition, 30 states and the District of Columbia have implemented requirements for safety training of persons renting PWC. The remaining states all indicate that they are considering action on this recommendation.

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 Coast Guard has issued an interim final rule that addresses the mandatory wear of PFDs for those states who do not have state specific PFD requirements. The rule addresses waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. However, the rule does not address sole state waters nor do state/local enforcement officers enforce the Coast Guard rule. The Board has asked states to require the use of PFDs by all children aboard recreational boats. Currently seven states (Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming), the District of Columbia, and three territories still do not require children under age 13 to wear a PFD on state waters. Some states, such as Florida and Maryland, permit a child as young as six or seven, respectively, to ride in a recreational vessel without wearing this lifesaving protection.

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 demonstrating their ability to safely operate that vessel. Every state probably has a story like the one I'm about to tell. A 17-year-old girl was killed by a speeding PWC operated by a 14-year-old boy who had completed no boating safety education. The boat pulling an inner tube with the 17-year-old girl was heading back to shore because the PWC was being operated in an unsafe manner. They didn't make it in time. Nebraska, as a result, is finalizing a mandatory education requirement this year. We should not wait until tragedy strikes to enact laws that we know are needed.

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

I want to again thank the International Boating and Water Safety Summit 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. Thank you, again and keep up your deep commitment to safety. I wish you all a very successful conference.