USCG must lead on shared waterway issues

Sharing the waterways is once again in the news with last month’s ferry collision with kayakers in New York. It’s an issue that I first wrote about in 2014 — a complex one for commercial operators like myself who have difficulties dealing with non-motorized self-propelled vessels and pleasure vessel operators.

Self-propelled vessels have every right to be on the water and participate as a vessel on the water. But they must have at least a loose working knowledge of the “rules of the road” and fully understand where they are in relation to commercial vessels. Most importantly, they must have some common sense. This may seem obvious, but on the Ohio River where I operate, this is not always the case. Now, before I get hate emails about this, I want to state that a majority of operators do a great job of staying out of the way of others and doing it in a safe manner. I am certain that just a few ruin the reputation of the whole, but we are talking about the safety of everyone on the water. In terms of self-propelled vessels, operator safety is at the most risk. If you were the operator, wouldn’t you want to understand how to put yourself in the safest possible place?

Education is a key component for having safe navigation in the long term. However, education is NOT a requirement to operate on a federal waterway. Until education is required, the problem will not go away. If an operator knows the dangers they will face, it is likely they will be able to avoid them. I am also a proponent of requiring the licensing of operators when they operate on a federal waterway with commercial traffic. This is the same as with the interstate highway system, where regulators decided early that bicycles and other self-propelled vehicles would not be permitted. Also, you are required to pass a driving test in order to get a driver’s license.

I am disappointed in the Coast Guard’s position to avoid this issue. The Coast Guard is the world leader on maritime issues and regulations but takes a back seat on sharing the waterways. The Coast Guard and NTSB are the two agencies that could hammer out the issues and come up with recommendations and/or regulations to solve this problem. It won’t be easy, but they can do it, working with the recreational and commercial communities towards a goal that solves the problem.

Sharing the waterways is a difficult issue to get your hands around. It has many facets and people have strong opinions on both sides. But this does not diminish the importance of reaching some logical conclusions that will ensure the safety of everyone involved.

About the author

Capt. Alan Bernstein

Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, is a licensed master and a former president of the Passenger Vessel Association. He can be reached at 859-292-2449 or [email protected]

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