NTSB Chair Welcomes Marine Safety Improvements

Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), welcomed maritime safety improvements that were included in the James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, which President Joe Biden signed into law December 23. The law also includes the Water Resources Development Act of 2022.

The legislation advances NTSB recommendations for amphibious vessels known as DUKW or “duck” boats and requires the U.S. Coast Guard to provide an initial response to new NTSB recommendations within 90 days, Homendy said. The NTSB has been pushing for Coast Guard rule changes for the duck boats for years, even before a duck boat overturned on Missouri’s Table Rock Lake in a sudden violent storm in April 2018, resulting in 17 deaths.

“We applaud lawmakers for their bold action to improve DUKW boat safety, something the NTSB has been concerned about for more than 20 years,” Homendy said. “But it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to address known safety issues for any vessel, and it certainly shouldn’t take decades.”

DUKW boats were designed and built in the 1940s for military use during World War II. Some were later converted for commercial service.

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They are unique vessels that require greater reserve buoyancy, canopy removal and other modifications before waterborne operations and training for crews, the NTSB said.

The NTSB first identified these safety issues in 1999 with the sinking of the Miss Majestic in Hot Springs, Ark., where 13 lives were lost. The board recommended corrective actions, but they were not acted on. The NTSB again made recommendations following the Table Rock Lake accident. 

The act mandates that the U.S. Coast Guard initiate rulemaking within six months requiring:

• reserve buoyancy through passive means and watertight compartmentalization;

• identification of limiting environment conditions, such as weather, in which DUKWs may safely operate;

• proceeding to harbor in case of wind warning;

• maintaining and monitoring weather radio;

• informing passengers not to wear seatbelts in water, performing visible seatbelt checks and maintaining a log recording actions; and

• annual training for operators and crew.

The legislation includes an interim requirement, within 180 days, to require removal of canopies and window coverings, require that passengers wear life vests, re-engineer vessels to minimize hull penetrations and require bilge pumps and LED lighting.

The legislation also brings the U.S. Coast Guard in line with Department of Transportation agencies, which are required to respond to new NTSB recommendations within 90 days.  The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“The reporting requirement increases transparency and ensures accountability on NTSB safety recommendations by the U.S. Coast Guard, which as the marine industry regulator, is best positioned to improve safety,” Homendy said.