Raise your lanyard for the kill-switch regulation


When the operator of a recreational boat is ejected or falls overboard, the outboard motor or stern drive often swings to one side. The unmanned boat then goes into a tight circle known as the circle of death, and anyone in the water is a risk of being struck, perhaps multiple times, by the propeller.

MN DNR photo

Vernon Fowlkes, a bass fishing industry entrepreneur from Tulsa and co-founder of the nation’s first local bass organization (Tulsa Bass Club), was killed in a bass boat propeller accident during the 1973 Bassmaster Classic III at Clark Hill Reservoir in South Carolina.

BassMaster magazine re-told the story of Vernon Fowlkes’ 1973 accident in 2008:

They (Fowlkes, Powell, and Brown) were running wide open into the main area when the steering cable on the engine broke and threw the engine into a full torque. The powerful prop flipped the boat over on its side, throwing all three men into the water. The boat made a complete circle and the prop struck Fowlkes’ body, killing him.

The article goes on to note that Ray Scott, renown bass tournament promoter, responded to Fowlkes’ death by creating a rule requiring all boats in his bass tournaments be equipped with a “kill switch.”

A similar accident on Missouri’s Table Rock Lake in 1994 involved Phyllis Kopytko, her husband, Bob, and their fishing guide. In the accident, the operator/guide and the Kopytko couple, celebrating their wedding anniversary, were thrown from the boat, and the boat entered what is known as the “circle of death.” The boat and propeller first struck the operator, who died in the water. Bob Kopytko was struck just as he waved to his wife that the boat was circling back behind her. Missing her, the boat struck and killed him. Phyllis was struck on the third circle and today survives as an amputee following 41 surgeries. Today every small thing is a challenge to Phyllis.

“When I was on my deathbed, I said I wanted to make boating safe for others,” said Kopytko. “I believe that I’m alive today and left here to serve a purpose, perhaps this is it: To warn others of exposed propeller dangers, and to work to make it mandatory for all boats to have safety equipment installed and regulated for use.”

Kopytko is just one of hundreds of boating safety advocates who have been pushing to get lawmakers to require engine cutoff switches in an effort to prevent others from becoming victims of propeller strikes.

The U.S. Coast Guard opened a docket, USCG 2009-0206, to regulate engine cutoff switches on recreational powerboats in 2009. The Coast Guard provided supportive documents including the Sage Report review of accidents from 2002 to 2006 on preventable or probably preventable fatalities and injuries had an engine cutoff switch been in use. The docket details the history and intent. The rule intends to incorporate the 2008 ABYC standard. This standard has been adopted by the National Marine Manufacturers Association and is used by their members today.

In June 2011, the Coast Guard published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and called for comments concerning a potential proposed rule requiring operators of powerboats to wear these switches when underway. The Coast Guard received 93 comments.

In an interview in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Circular 78 (August 1996), Mercury Marine engineer Dick Snyder stated: “Kill switches (“lanyard operated ignition interrupting switches” or more simply “lanyard stop switches”) are contained in most manufacturers’ control boxes and as a dash mounted accessory. We think that they are generally a good safety device to use. Although Mercury has made them a part of our control boxes for 17 years, operator usage is not very high.”

This 1996 statement indicates that Mercury Marine offered these switches in 1979, and we found a reference to Mercury’s Quicksilver Ignition Stop Switch in an article by Popular Mechanics in 1974. This is 11 years after the earliest known Murdock patent in 1963; followed later by the Tomlin patent filed in 1973 that seems to correspond to the 1973 fatal bass boat propeller accident of the famed Vernon Fowlkes.

In 1974, Popular Mechanics published the article “This Switch Can Save Your Life: Now Required for Racing, and Tournament Fishing. This is Boating’s Newest Necessity.” The president of the California Bass Association said all bass tournament rules require life jackets. In addition, several sites quote the following mandatory rule:

All boats must be equipped with some type of emergency ignition cut-off device (kill switch) on any remote steered outboard while the main engine is in use. Ignition cut-off device (kill switch) must be attached to the boat operator at all times when the main engine is in use. Kill switches must operate properly. When the kill switch is activated, the outboard main engine must stop running immediately. However, kill switches are not required with hand-operated engines unless equipped with one when manufactured.

What do these accidents cost society?
The current Value of Statistical Life (VSL) for the Kopytko accident would be two fatalities at $9.1 million each and one critical at $5.4. This is a $23.5 million loss to society. By contrast, engine cutoff switch costs are minimal. A virtual wireless model is even available for occupants to attach to their swimsuits or clothing. These devices work even if a boat is equipped with three or four outboard motors. The new regulation would not even require a retrofit. If it is on board, it must be used.

Here are the facts, as we understand them:

cutoff switchThe USCG grant reviewers for the Sage Report reviewed the official annual reports from 2002 to 2006 to make the initial selection from categories of accidents that might have been averted if the operator were wearing a “kill switch”:

  • falls overboard
  • ejected
  • struck by motor/propeller
  • struck by boat
  • collision with a vessel, fixed object, submerged object, etc.
  • grounding, flooding, swamping and capsizing

The Results of the SAGE Report (2002-2006) and a Proportional Statistical Analysis for 2007-2013.

This SAGE report lists deaths ranging from 63 to 106 and injuries ranging from 103 to 136, as having been likely preventable with cutoff switch use in the scenarios above. During that same five-year period of 2002-2006, the U.S. Coast Guard recorded 3,536 deaths and 18,238 injuries across the nation.

Using the current VSL (Value of Statistical Life or Value to Save a Life) at $9.1 million, the 89 preventable and 17 probable accidents in this five-year period represent a cost to society of $954,100,000 – almost a billion dollars. Injuries amounted to 128 preventable and 8 probable. 

Dr. Miguel Mendez-Fernandez, who has written several articles on motorboat propeller injuries, compares some propeller injuries to “war wounds,” which are extremely costly over a lifetime. Each accident would have to be evaluated case by case. However, if we use the “critical” injury DOT number of $5.4 million, we can suggest the value to have prevented these injuries to be $634.4 million.

In the years 2007-2013 since this SAGE report was conducted, there have been 4,771 deaths and 22,216 injuries listed in the USCG Boating Statistics. If we assume that the number of cutoff switch preventable deaths and injuries will stay proportionally the same as the SAGE statistics, (in other words, all deaths and injuries in similarly selected scenarios), then we could have prevented between 85 to 143 deaths, as well as between 125 to 166 injuries in the period 2007-2013.

Now, if we want to turn the 2007-2013 fatalities into a dollar value (based on the current value of a statistical life of $9.1 million), the preventable proportional deaths would value at between $773.5 million and $1.3 billion dollars.

Likewise, to turn injuries into dollar values, we again use the “critical” injury number around $5.4 million (60% of the VSL). That would yield a proportional cost estimate of between $677 million and $894 million dollars for the likely preventable proportional injuries during 2007-2013.

The regulation would create no burden for the marine manufacturers. For 10 years, it has been estimated that three-fourths of the motor boats produced by the major manufacturers are equipped with engine cutoff switches as original equipment. The calculated cost benefit to enact this rule is very favorable.

Who supports this regulation?

The Coast Guard has many partners on board in support of the cutoff switch use and wear:

  • National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA): Model Act of 2005
  • National Boating Safety Advisory Council (NBSAC): Resolutions of 2006
  • Major marine manufacturers and ABYC: as currently equipped per 2008 standard
  • Many members of select safe boating organizations
  • The general public, especially survivors where death and injury were prevented for voluntary use where their boat happened to be so equipped.

The SAGE report concluded that “of the accidents determined to be likely preventable had a kill switch been in operation, striking by the boat propeller accounted for approximately 35 of the 39 deaths and 99 of the 128 injuries.” Clearly, the cutoff switch is critical to saving lives and preventing injuries.

 SPIN requests your help to promote engine cutoff switch legislation

Knowing that countless injuries and deaths could be prevented with the use of engine cutoff switches, SPIN (Stop Propeller Injuries Now!) has been actively promoting the advancement of the proposed regulation. We have contacted all 17 members of the congressional oversight subcommittee for U.S. Coast Guard and Maritime Affairs as well as our various state Congressmen to request their support. We distributed an advocacy paper at the recent International Boating and Water Safety Summit. We attended the National Boating Safety Advisory Council meeting in May to raise our questions. Now we are appealing to members of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. We ask you to add your well-regarded and considerable voice in support of this regulation.

We ask that NASBLA

resurrect its 2004 Model Act Requiring the Use of Engine Cutoff Switches on Mechanically Powered Vessels, which was adopted by only seven states and none since 2009;

review the NBSAC resolutions of 2006, the ABYC standard of 2008, the Docket 2009 06-02 and comments from 2011;

reach out to their members and encourage all states to incorporate mandatory wear regulations; and

request that member states select two years and do an in-depth study of accident data to see what effect an engine cutoff switch mandatory wear would have state by state.

SPIN appreciates that the states would prefer to manage this program and the education thereof. As Congress repeatedly has turned down the USCG request for the authority to set federal education standards, it is up to the states to fulfill this need with some sense of reciprocity as well. We feel that if more states would adopt a law for mandatory wear following the NASBLA Model Act of 2005, then there would be no need for this federal regulation.

Boating law administrators represent one-third of the membership on NBSAC. These members have listened to the Coast Guard for three years. No progress has been made. We do not know what the holdup is. However, since BLA members on NBSAC have a right to ask any questions relative to the goal of boating safety in their state, they could look into the matter.

Jeff Johnson, Alaska’s BLA, recently told me that over 30 percent of Alaska’s fatalities are the direct result of a fall overboard or ejection, and bodies are often never recovered from their frigid water. In many cases, boats are found empty running in circles or grounded with the motor down. He is convinced that by wearing a lifejacket, attaching a kill switch, and having a means to re-board the boat, fatalities (particularly involving solo operators of power boats) would be reduced significantly. NASBLA might focus on this and collect the data state by state, especially from those states where the mandatory wear model has been adopted.

We feel certain if states and industry work together, a federal regulation might be redundant. It will be good sense cooperation that could resolve this. This rule will definitely not end all propeller strikes. We will always be in favor of guards where applicable. This is just part of the solution. Let us nibble at it and accomplish something or charge your organization to pressure a final federal rule. Delay means more death and injury and financial burden.

We are reminded of Congressman Lo Biondo’s remark at the 2001 CO hearing when he asked the Coast Guard if the propeller strike issue was actively being pursued or just “another Mission to Mars?” Ask again Congressman. We have landed on Mars. We have landed on a comet! We have not seen even a slight decline on average in propeller fatalities and injuries. This regulation would be part of the solution.

SPIN welcomes comments and information and will share any sources and articles on this subject. Please contact me at marioncruz@att.net.

One comment

  • Great presentation of circle of death — only seen it as described by others. Too many deaths for the lack of use of such simple piece of equipment.. Get the word out to help to promote engine cutoff switch legislation in every state. Kudos to this relentless author and thanks for publishing.

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