Ok, so we all do it. Check our email or texts at work or in the car. It’s just too tempting.

But it’s risky and often very dangerous, and at worst, deadly, even in the maritime industry.

In 2010 a tugboat pushing a sludge barge in the Delaware River in Philadelphia collided with an amphibious "duck boat," sinking the passenger vessel in 55 feet of water, killing two tourists and injuring 26 other passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that distracted operations and use of a portable electronic device (PED) by the mate on watch played a central role in the collision. Their report said that the crew member made and received numerous cellphone calls just around the time of the crash and was also using the internet on the company’s laptop - which violated the company’s policy.

The NTSB asked American Waterways Operators (AWO) to notify its members about the accident and urge them to implement safety procedures for the proper use of PEDs on vessels.

Since then, AWO has surveyed its members on PED use, and in March spoke about the issue at a roundtable at NTSB headquarters in Washington. The NTSB has made distracted driving in all modes of transportation a “most wanted” safety improvement for 2015.

Some of the AWO survey results on PED use are quite interesting:

  • Of the 60 respondents, 96% said they have corporate policies in place that either limit or prohibit PED use – particularly when performing safety-critical tasks, including in the wheelhouse, on a tow, or driving a company vehicle. Some policies give discretion to the captain to decide when use is prohibited or allowed.
  • When permitted, hands-free devices are encouraged.
  • PED use is allowed by most companies while riding in a vehicle for crew change or waiting for the boat and by non-vessel operators.
  • One company said it collected all phones and stashed them away until the crew was off duty. But some crew members got around this by having two phones and handing in only one!
  • Some companies have purchased PEDs for use by the crew for boat operations. Usage of the devices is strictly monitored.

The real challenge for towing companies will come in devising policies that are not just enforceable, but also recognize the value of PEDs to operations – when used properly. Many companies, for example, are developing apps that provide easy access for employees to find things like personnel information and company policies.

And in today’s digital age of navigation, electronic devices are becoming the norm for communications and operations. One idea is to develop an app to report near misses of accidents that would include picture-taking and sharing. This use of a PED is important for safety management as it would help track risk and promote crew awareness, said Holly Riester, director, Safety and Environmental Stewardship at AWO. She said managing PED use is a top safety priority for towing companies.

AWO is currently preparing a set of “best practices” that can be used by towing companies. How does your company or crew handle PED use? Comment on this post, or email Holly Riester at AWO.

Pamela Glass is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for WorkBoat. She reports on the decisions and deliberations of congressional committees and federal agencies that affect the maritime industry, including the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to coming to WorkBoat, she covered coastal, oceans and maritime industry news for 15 years for newspapers in coastal areas of Massachusetts and Michigan for Ottaway News Service, a division of the Dow Jones Company. She began her newspaper career at the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times. A native of Massachusetts, she is a 1978 graduate of Wesleyan University (Conn.). She currently resides in Potomac, Md.