PVA discusses recreational traffic safety with NTSB

The Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) has taken its concerns about the hazards posed by recreational boaters to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

In October, PVA made its case to the NTSB, best known for investigating accidents and making recommendations for preventing them. Covering everyone from kayakers who surf tugboat waves in Puget Sound to paddle boarders on the Chicago River, the problem comes up regularly at the Alexandria, Va.-based trade group’s regional meetings.

“It is an issue we’re having to deal with more frequently,” said John Groundwater, PVA’s executive director. “We wanted to make sure they were aware that this is something operators and marine crews are dealing with every day.”

Boaters are out on the water doing whatever they want, said Capt. Mike McElroy, director of marine operations for Chicago’s Wendella Boats and Chicago Water Taxi, which participated in PVA’s presentation. 

“Most of these people have never been on a boat before. It’s the equivalent of somebody without a driver’s license getting on the expressway,” he said. “As most mariners know, since Sept. 11, there’s been a real focus on vigilance. We have near misses every day. It’s an emerging risk, particularly with the small electric boats.”

McElroy said he hopes the NTSB will take some proactive steps to determine whether the recreational activities are appropriate for the Chicago River and other waterways and set some guidelines. They’d also like the owners who charter out the recreational vessels to shoulder some responsibility.

NTSB invited PVA to talk to its marine staff about the industry, so in addition to topics such as its Flagship safety management system, PVA decided to raise the traffic concerns. 

“We just want them to be part of the dialogue,” Groundwater said. “I think they were receptive and concerned.”

Capt. Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats Inc., Cincinnati, and a WorkBoat columnist, noted that in many cases operators of kayaks and other small craft “have very little experience with navigation rules of the road, they often fail to don lifejackets and sometimes they are intoxicated.”

“Professional mariners are both trained and experienced,” Bernstein said. So with the growing potential for accidents involving commercial and recreational vessels, he suggests everyone be educated in safe operations.

“It’s certainly something we’re interested in,” said Tracy Murrell, director of the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety. “In the future, we might take a closer look at it.” The NTSB can conduct safety studies and determine if an issue needs more attention.

And while it has no regulatory authority, the agency can be very persuasive. For example, the NTSB suggested the Coast Guard overhaul its medical review process and require reporting of the results of all physicals after the October 2003 Staten Island Ferry accident that killed 11 and injured 70. The assistant captain, who did not disclose his medical condition and the medications he was taking, lost consciousness before the Andrew J. Barberi slammed into a pier. The upshot was a Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular, which lays out medical and physical evaluation guidelines.  

In July, the NTSB recommended the Coast Guard implement a special license endorsement for parasail operators based on its first investigation into the largely unregulated activity. Citing accidents that resulted in deaths and injuries, the NTSB said some risks “could be mitigated if operators were required to have at least a minimum level of experience and professional competence.” — Dale K. DuPont 

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