Salute to the US Coast Guard’s Persistence in Improving Recreational Boating Safety

By Jeff Marcus, Chief, NTSB Safety Recommendations Division

In many states, when using motorized recreational vessels, or engaging in activities like canoeing, kayaking, and standup paddleboarding, operators are not required to attend a boating safety course, obtain a license or certificate, be familiar with the navigation rules (commonly called the “Rules of the Road”), or even demonstrate proficiency in watercraft operation.

In 2016, the NTSB sought to better understand the scope of the issue and determine the safety impact on the nation’s waterways following:

  • our investigation of a collision between eight kayakers and a New York Waterways ferry,
  • feedback we received from marine industry representatives, and
  • concerns about the increase in encounters between commercial and recreational vessels.

We took what we learned and began to develop a safety recommendation report.

In 2017, we published Shared Waterways: Safety of Recreational and Commercial Vessels in the Marine Transportation System, providing our findings as well as recommendations to improve shared waterway safety. We found there is an increased safety risk, especially where confined waterways limit the ability of vessels to maneuver. This is exacerbated not only by the diversity of waterway users but also by differences in their experience, marine knowledge, and boat-handling skills. Moreover, state requirements varied considerably. 

At the time of our report, the US Coast Guard estimated that in 2015 only 28 percent of motorized recreational vessel operators were required by state laws to complete a boating safety course or pass an examination of boating safety knowledge. Could you imagine if that were the case when it came to obtaining a private pilot’s license? Clearly, recreational vessel operators need a minimum level of boating safety knowledge to mitigate the various risks associated with the type of vessel being operated.

So, we issued Safety Recommendation M-17-2, which asked the Coast Guard to seek statutory authority to require recreational boat operators to complete a national boating safety course. When we issued this recommendation, we were aware that the Coast Guard had previously sought statutory authority to require recreational boat operators to complete a national standard minimum boating safety education course. As our Shared Waterways report pointed out, at that time, over 70 percent of motorized vessel operators and most nonmotorized vessel operators were still not required to demonstrate minimum boating safety knowledge.

Today, we commend the US Coast Guard for its determined and sustained role in promoting recreational boating safety. Although the Coast Guard has not been granted authority to implement a minimum national standard for boating safety as we’d hoped, it has developed an alternative approach that addresses the safety issue. Instead of saying there was nothing they could do because they didn’t have statutory authority, the Coast Guard developed a solution to address the safety problem. Consistent with congressional direction, the Coast Guard focused on supporting state-led initiatives to develop educational programs and requirements for recreational boaters. Working in partnership with the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, the states, and various recreational boating stakeholders, the Coast Guard helped develop and update boating education standards. With the Coast Guard’s active support, recreational boating education has greatly improved nationwide. In its latest update to the NTSB, the Coast Guard reported that currently all but five states have mandatory boating safety education.

Safety is a journey, not a destination. Although there is always more to be done, the Coast Guard’s alternative action led to significant improvements in recreational boating safety across the nation and satisfied the intent of our recommendation.

We issue safety recommendations to other federal agencies and transportation stakeholders engaged in all modes: air, highway, rail, marine, and pipeline. Although we may recommend a particular action, there are often alternative solutions that are equally effective in addressing a safety problem that we identify through our investigations. Like sailing into the wind, sometimes a direct path isn’t possible; sometimes you must tack back and forth to make the mark. We encourage our safety recommendation recipients not to give up if our recommended action proves unattainable, and to pursue alternate actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation. Our goal is to improve transportation safety in any way possible.

We ask all our recommendation recipients to share updates with us on relevant actions they’ve taken to address our concerns. Hearing from them helps us evaluate progress and properly classify the status of recommendations.

Stay safe on the water. Let’s work together as we navigate our way to zero transportation deaths and serious injuries, and safer transportation for all.

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