Time To Federalize Recreational Boater Safety?

February 20, 2017

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a new study (see story on page 3) that calls for the federalizing of recreational boater safety.

This issue is far from new. The report notes that the Coast Guard has been trying for more than a decade, without success, to get authority from Congress to require recreational boat operators to demonstrate a minimum level of knowledge of boating safety and navigational rules of the road.

Any towboat captain or pilot knows that he has to be constantly on the watch for recreational boat operators. Like motherhood and apple pie, a higher level of boater safety is one of those things that everyone supports and no one opposes.

The Coast Guard already does a lot of education on boater safety. The American Waterways Operators have also contributed to these efforts, along with the Passenger Vessel Association and many other public and private groups, including the congressionally chartered National Boating Safety Advisory Council (NBSAC). The last-named group recommended in 1992 that the Coast Guard develop a plan to address the needs of all waterways users together. On a local level, Harbor Safety Committees (HSCs) made up of maritime stakeholders in most harbors and many port areas also develop safety materials.

The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) represents the recreational boating authorities of all 50 states and the U.S. territories. (At one time the Coast Guard contributed toward NASBLA safety education efforts, but ruled in 2010 that it could no longer do so.) NASBLA has endorsed, since 2007, efforts by states to impose mandatory boating safety education requirements.

The message of the NTSB’s report is that the voluntary and state-level approach does not appear to be working. The Coast Guard reported 4,158 recreational boating accidents in 2015, of which 990 were collisions with recreational vessels and 470 were collisions with fixed objects. Interviewees told NTSB investigators that “the degree of risk appears to be influenced largely by a lack of awareness or understanding of the navigation rules among a large portion of recreational boat operators and by their lack of adequate boating knowledge and skills.”

Elsewhere, the report notes that “despite previous Coast Guard efforts to obtain the necessary legislative authority to require boater education and the NTSB’s recommendation to the states to accomplish the same objective, over 70 percent of motorized vessel operators and most nonmotorized vessel operators are still not required to demonstrate minimum boating safety knowledge.”

Rec boat users are a vocal interest group in many states, especially those that depend on boating tourism, making state regulation unpopular and a tough sell for state legislators. Existing state boating safety regulations differ from state to state (the same problem that has led the AWO to call for a national standard for vessel discharge regulations).

The NTSB concludes that “a national approach is needed.” It urges the Coast Guard to renew its efforts to seek statutory authority to require education to NASBLA standards for all recreational boat owners.

The barge and towing industry has just welcomed Subchapter M, by which it accepted more stringent regulations in the name of safety. The NTSB is arguing that all the burden for safety awareness is being placed on operators of passenger and commercial vessels, and little or none on operators of recreational vessels.

If the full potential of the maritime transportation system is to be realized, as so many have advocated, it will mean a big expansion of commercial traffic as recreational traffic continues to increase as well.

Whether or not a new set of national regulations for recreational boaters will be seriously considered by Congress in the current anti-regulatory environment is an open question.

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