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Remarks before the 2005 International Boating and Water Safety Summit, Newport Beach, CA
Mark V. Rosenker
International Boating and Water Safety Summit, Newport Beach, CA

Good morning, Presidents Ed Carter (National Safe Boating Council) and Bobby Pharr (National Water Safety Congress), and attendees at the 2005 International Boating and Water Safety Summit (Summit). It certainly is a pleasure this morning to discuss the National Transportation Safety Board’s efforts to achieve maximum success in recreational boating safety through our MOST WANTED list of safety improvements. This year as most of you are aware we have expended a great deal of resources and energy to obtain the final few States without personal flotation devices (lifejackets) for children and increase the number of states with boater education requirements.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that result from our investigations and safety studies are one of our most important products. In our 36-year history, more than 80 percent of our recommendations have been adopted by organizations, states and local government bodies in a position to effect improvements in transportation safety.

I am here this morning to remind you that recreational boating continues to have the greatest number of transportation fatalities after highway accidents, even exceeding fatalities from aviation accidents. In 2003, 703 persons were killed in boating accidents in this country.

As a result of its concern regarding the number of boating deaths and injuries, the Safety Board a little over a decade ago, conducted a study of recreational boating accidents and their causes. Examining recreational boating accidents that occurred in 18 States in 1991, the Board reviewed information on 407 recreational boating accidents that resulted in 478 fatalities. The Safety Board also reviewed U.S. Coast Guard data and studies performed by other organizations.

Further, the Board investigated three recreational boating accidents from 1992 in which 13 persons died, including 4 children and 2 teenagers.

Failure to use PFDs was then, and continues to be, the leading cause of recreational boating drowning fatalities. Of the 478 fatalities that occurred in the accidents examined in our 1993 study, 351 resulted from drowning. Of those who drowned and for whom information on PFD use was available, 85 percent (281) did not wear PFDs. The Safety Board reviewed the circumstances of the 281 drownings in which the victims were not wearing a PFD and determined that as many as 238 persons (85 percent) may have survived had they been correctly wearing a PFD. Only a few factors can negate the effectiveness of PFDs, most often hypothermia and injury as a result of blunt trauma force.

The 2003 boating experience again confirmed the importance of PFD use. According to U.S. Coast Guard boating accident statistics, nearly 86 percent of the fatalities who drowned in recreational boating accidents in 2003 could have survived if they had taken the simple step of wearing a lifejacket. Drownings accounted for 481, or nearly 68 percent, of the 703 recreational boating fatalities in 2003. PFDs could have prevented an estimated 416 or 86 percent of those fatalities. There is no question that wearing a PFD can save your life.

One accident in Arkansas that the Safety Board investigated highlights the Board’s concerns. At about 11:30 on a Sunday morning, a 9-person family boarded a family-owned boat at a public boat launching area on the Fourche La Fave River near Perryville, Arkansas. The family, which included a man, a woman, and children ranging in age from 16 months to 14 years, intended to go down the river to fish from the bank. The man and a 12-year-old girl were the only persons on board who could swim.

Although weather conditions were ideal, the boat and the passengers were not adequately prepared for potential problems. The weather was clear and 90 degrees. Visibility was good, and there were only light winds. The 14-foot long aluminum boat was open, flat-bottomed, and not equipped with PFDs. With a 9.9-horsepower outboard motor, the motorboat fell under the Arkansas exemption, which did not require motorboats of less than 10 horsepower to carry PFDs. The passengers, who also did not wear PFDs, sat on four bench seats. At the site of the accident, the river was approximately 80 feet wide, and its depth at the center varied from 9 to 50 feet.

As the boat headed downstream, water splashed on the boy and girl who were sitting in the front seat. They moved rearward, causing the boat to flood. It sank in the middle of the river, in about 14 feet of water, and only about 100 feet downstream from the boat launching area. The 12 year-old girl swam to shore, and a 14 year-old girl supported herself in the water by holding onto the bow of the boat, which remained above the surface.

Two fishermen, who arrived at the boat-launching area shortly after the accident, found the 12-year-old on the riverbank and the 14-year-old holding onto the boat. The men entered the water and brought the 14-year-old ashore. One rescuer searched the riverbank for more survivors. He found an unconscious 4-year-old in the water, near the riverbank, in the approximate area of the accident. Although he administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), the child was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local hospital. Officials started a search, and found five other victims that day and one the next day. Five children and two adults died in this one accident.

The Safety Board’s investigation of this accident concluded that the lack of PFDs contributed to the loss of these seven lives.

State and federal laws require that all boats have life jackets on board. As you know, the problem is that they do not work if no one is wearing them. As with many accidents in which boats capsize or persons fall overboard, people don’t think to put them on until it’s too late. This is why the Safety Board has recommended that the States require children to wear PFDs while underway. Requiring children to wear PFDs could, over time, result in more adults wearing PFDs, such as what occurred with the use of child safety seats and safety belts in automobiles.

C urrently, 44 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have some type of PFD use requirement for children. The Safety Board considers recreational boating safety and the issue of children in PFDs (life jackets) so important that we included this issue on our 2005 “Most Wanted” transportation safety improvements list as one of the areas where critical changes are needed to reduce unnecessary loss of life.

The United States Coast Guard contracted with JSI Research & Training Institute to track personal flotation wear rates for the past 5 years. It does not surprise me that JSI reports that in 2002 children ages 12 and under was the only age category in which there was significant improvement in wear rates for life jackets. This improvement that JSI reports most likely results from publicity around mandatory PFD use laws for this age group that were largely adopted since 2000.

So where are we today with the final 6 States? I am disappointed to report that Virginia had legislation introduced in the 2005 session by Senator Thomas Norment and that the Virginia Senate voted in favor of the bill by a 34-6 vote on the floor. Unfortunately, the Virginia House defeated the bill by a 35-62 vote, apparently, over a squabble about penalties. I would like to thank Virginia’s Boating Law Administrator Charlie Sledd for his support on this legislation and let there be no doubt we will be back in force in 2006 to get this legislation enacted. On the other hand, I am pleased to report that as we speak there are strong efforts to get legislation enacted in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Early indications are that we will be successful in these 3 States. We also have been in discussions with New Mexico’s Boating Law Administrator Jerome Madrid and we hope that a regulation/legislation will be introduced by the end of 2006 to eliminate that State from our list. There remains Wyoming and we have made contact with the new Boating Law Administrator Mike Choma and look forward to a strong working relationship to foster legislation for that State. I might add we also are looking for an initiative from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Indiana’s completion of lifejacket requirements for its State waters.

But what about our other important issue: Boater education requirements. It would seem like common sense because our experience and the studies completed addressing recreational boating safety continue to reflect that more than 80 percent of the operators involved in fatal boating accidents had not completed a basic boating safety education course. Although we cannot say with 100 percent certainty that a boating education requirement will further reduce accidents, fatalities, and injuries it certainly would preclude the Board’s finding that individuals involved in fatal boating accidents, regardless of their level of experience, operated their vessels in a manner inconsistent with a basic knowledge of the “rules of the road,” an understanding of safe boating practices, and a proficiency in operating skills.

Currently, at least 33 States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have enacted legislation that establishes an education requirement before a person is permitted to operate a recreational boat. We are making inroads on this serious safety issue and have legislation introduced in Washington State, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Additionally, a number of States are beginning to address this issue including New Mexico, Oklahoma, Idaho, and New York.

I would conclude that the Safety Board realizes that enacting these legislative initiatives is hard work but if we are truly in the safety business these actions should be of the highest priority.

Finally, I would love to stay at the Summit but I must return to Washington to host an international meeting, (the International Transportation Safety Association) of organizations that have the same goal as the Safety Board. I wish you all the best as you explore new and innovative safety improvements to achieve further safety benefits at this powerful Summit.

Thank you for providing the National Transportation Safety Board an opportunity to provide these remarks about the critical safety initiatives on the Board’s MOST WANTED list.