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Remarks to the 2008 International Boating and Water Safety Summit, San Diego, CA
Robert L. Sumwalt
San Diego, CA

Thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting the National Transportation Safety Board to the 2008 International Boating and Water Safety Summit.   

Chairman Mark Rosenker sends his warmest regards and regrets that he could not be here with us. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to be in San Diego instead of Washington preparing for Congressional testimony?  Here with me today is Bill Gossard, who needs no introduction to this group.  

You know, we share the passion for improving safety. It is great to be among so many dedicated safety advocates who work hard day-after-day making our waterways safer and enjoyable for all boaters.  The great thing about investing our efforts in this industry is that we have the opportunity to make such a significant difference in reducing the number of fatalities and injuries resulting from boating accidents.  Every effort goes a long way towards protecting another child, another family.

Coming from the aviation industry, I was surprised to learn that there are more fatalities each year from recreational boating accidents than from general aviation accidents.  Over 700 boaters die each year on our Nation’s waterways.  The two major safety failures that account for these deaths are the failure to wear a PFD, and the lack of boater education. 

Because of the importance of these two particular issues, I’ll first review a few statistics to help put them into perspective, and then I’ll provide an update of our combined efforts in effecting legislation.


The vast majority of boating accident fatalities are by drowning.  The Coast Guard estimates that 84% of these drowning victims would still be alive if they had worn PFDs.  Over 400 people each year – about the number of people in this room – die because they are not wearing a life jacket.

To put this in perspective, this would be equivalent to having over eight, fully-loaded commercial regional jet aircraft accidents each year in which there were no survivors on board.  Over eight.  There would be a public outcry if this occurred in the aviation industry, but somehow the headlines don’t give the same attention to the boating industry. 

We can and need to do more to reduce this number.  Boaters who would never consider driving their children to soccer practice without their children in seatbelts, car seats, or booster seats, are sometimes the same people who fail to protect their children on the water with a life jacket.  We need to change the culture of recreational boating, so that every boater, every time they get into a boat, wears a life vest, just as we routinely buckle up when we get into our car.

Boater Education

Boater education is also important.  About 80 percent of recreational boat operators who were involved in an accident never completed a boating safety education course.  We know that it works.

In Connecticut, uneducated boaters had 5 times more accidents than did educated boaters in 1996.  Since requiring mandatory education, Connecticut has reduced its fatalities by 50 percent.  Alabama’s legislation goes even further with a requirement for operator license and testing, and has reduced its fatalities by 40 percent over the past five years.  <Cancer Deaths>

You are here today because you are also passionate about these issues.  For more than 2 ½ decades the NTSB has been pleased to work with the National Safe Boating Council and the National Water Safety Congress in promoting recreational boating safety on our Nation's waterways. 

The Board and organizations at this Summit have worked together to make the Nation’s waterways safer in the critical areas I have identified: use of PFDs and boater education.  I’d like to brief you on this progress.  

2004 Public Forum on PFDs in Recreational Boating
The Board worked with industry in the 2004 Public Forum on PFDs in Recreational Boating.  At this forum, participants agreed that the highest priority is for the requirement for children to wear PFDs, but they also agreed on the importance of State legislation for boating safety education.

The Board asked the Coast Guard to advance State safety programs, and asked NASBLA to enhance information in its National Educational Standards.  We are still working with the Coast Guard and NASBLA on these issues.

The Board also asked manufacturers and retailers to work together to help change the boating culture – to encourage boaters to accept wearing life jackets – to make this a way of life.  We are pleased with the marketing approaches undertaken by NMMA and MRAA, and have classified these recommendations as, “Closed – Acceptable Action.”

Most Wanted List
The Board has also worked with the States in following responses to recommendations on its Most Wanted list of transportation safety improvements.  This list includes critical changes needed to reduce transportation accidents and save lives.
One recommendation is for States to require mandatory education of boat operators, and I’m pleased to say that we are making significant progress on this issue.  

  • Today, 36 States, DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands have enacted legislation or taken action to enact laws consistent with our recommendation.  We believe that the Coast Guard has played a significant role in promoting State action in this area.

The second recommendation is for States to require use of life jackets by children. We have made tremendous headway on this issue.  

  • Almost 100 percent of the States require children to wear life jackets.  Only 3 States do not have laws, and in these states solid bills were introduced this year.  This is tremendous.  We are further hoping that all states will adopt the recommended age 13 threshold – 10 States have yet to do so.

The third recommendation is for States to require safety instruction prior to personal watercraft rental. 

  • Presently, 35 States, DC, and 4 territories have enacted legislation or have taken action consistent with the Board’s recommendation

Sole State Passenger Vessel Training Seminar
Another important area which has involved an effective partnership between the Safety Board, the States and industry is the seminar on the sole State passenger vessels

As a result of the ETHAN ALLEN accident on Lake George, New York, the Safety Board held a training seminar in October 2006.   27 States and Puerto Rico were in attendance.  The seminar was a sound first step to engage the States about the seriousness of the certification and inspection needs of small passenger vessels. 

One positive outcome of this seminar is that the Board and the Coast Guard agreed to undertake a comparative review of the Coast Guard’s regulations addressing small passenger vessels and the NASBLA Model Act for Charter Boat Safety.  The Safety Board and the Coast Guard have completed that review and Chairman Rosenker sent it to NASBLA for action.  We and the Coast Guard stand by to assist NASBLA in making changes to its Model Act.   

I would like to point out that 4 States, on their own initiative, have completed legislation on sole State passenger vessels: New York, Texas, Utah and Tennessee.  The Safety Board looks forward to the next NASBLA conference to complete the Model Act.

I want to recognize NASBLA’s leadership, including past Presidents Charlie Sledd and Jeff Johnson who made this a focus during their terms in office.  

The Safety Board strongly supports safety in every way possible.  My colleagues on the Board and I, along with our staff, have already testified or provided supporting information to a number of States in the 2008 legislative cycle.

I challenge all of you to join with us in completing the mission in motivating all States to enact legislation for mandatory boater education and to require children to wear PFDs every time they are on a boat. 

In conclusion, I would like to thank you for your efforts in making the Nation’s waterways safer.  Keep up the great work, and God Bless America.


NASBLA (National Association of State Boating Law Administrators)
NMMA (National Marine Manufacturers Association)
MRAA (Marine Retailers Association of America)