No one knows better than towboat operators that river safety is a shared responsibility. Our industry has made tremendous strides in increasing safety in a difficult occupation that can be dangerous. Towing companies have enacted zero-incident goal programs that capture more data, and reported incidents have steadily dropped.
The safety partnership established in 1995 between The American Waterways Operators and the Coast Guard is the oldest such public-private partnership. “Since its establishment, the Safety Partnership has been distinguished by its non-regulatory, data-driven, results-oriented approach,” AWO’s website notes. That data-driven approach is behind AWO’s Safety Statistics Reporting Program, which compiles detailed and accurate data on incidents. The towing industry has also been a leader in enacting safety protocols and procedures during the COVID-19 period.
One measure that should make waterways safer for all is the adoption of a new law that took effect April 1 mandating engine cutoff switches via lanyards and bungees or wireless devices attached to recreational boat operators. When an operator is wearing a link while underway, the engine will cutoff if the operator is separated from the operating area, an occurrence that can happen if the operator is ejected from the vessel or falls within the vessel. The shutdown of the engine is essential for safety reasons. If the operator is ejected from the vessel, the shutdown may prevent the operator from making contact with the vessel’s spinning propeller and may aid him or her in safely returning to the drifting vessel.
As summer approaches, more rec boats will be taking to the rivers and waterways. In 2019, the Coast Guard counted 4,168 rec boat accidents involving 613 deaths, 2,559 injuries and $55 million in property damage. While devices like the engine cutoff can help bring these numbers down, the Coast Guard stresses that the vast majority of these incidents are preventable.
The Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard both provide resources to help rec boaters operate more safely, including wearing life jackets and observing all safety precautions. Useful videos and information may be found on the Coast Guard boating safety site at https://safeafloat.com/.
Even though commercial operators always operate safely and responsibly, extra vigilance is warranted when on watch during the summer boating season. We are proud when we read of the rescues that highly trained towboat crews perform, but it would be better if they were never necessary.