Recreational Boating Accident Investigations: Why do we really do them?

Accident photo_NJ

Every year the United States averages more than 4,000 reported recreational boating accidents. Among these are groundings, collisions, fires, explosions, and the classic “operator error.” One thing these reportable boating accidents have in common is this: They all require a report to the U.S. Coast Guard and some degree of investigation. 

The Coast Guard provides grant funding annually to conduct accident investigation courses to train state personnel in the art of investigating boating accidents. Although these courses provide basic investigative training, it is up to the individuals involved as to how well he or she applies this training in the field.   

A review of investigative reports submitted by the states shows that, for the most part, the accident investigators use their training to determine the primary cause of the accident and whom, if anyone, might be at fault and whether there may be charges to be brought against anyone. Often, that’s usually where the investigation ends. 

A recreational boating accident investigation can be a simple recitation of the facts that detail a boater’s failed attempt to dock his boat resulted in $5000 damage to the hull. That’s pretty clear cut. Others, however, are not as straightforward. 

The overwhelming majority of explosions aboard recreational boats occur during or shortly after fueling the boat. There can be any number of reasons stemming from improper/poor ventilation, failure to use power ventilation, or improper ignition protection which would include non-marine protected ignition components. Much less thought of in an investigation is the relationship of fuel hoses, fill pipes, tanks, etc. to the possible cause of the accident. That’s where the need for a more serious investigation comes in. 

Take for instance a 25′ inboard gasoline powered boat that suffers a fire and explosion shortly after fueling. The interview with the operator reveals that power ventilation was not used for the required amount of time before energizing the engine’s ignition. Seems pretty simple but, is that enough? An in-depth inspection of the vessel could reveal much more. 

An extreme case would be a newer manufactured boat (say a 2013 model) that suffers the above casualty with the same interview results. An intrepid accident investigator would do their due-diligence and conduct a thorough post-casualty inspection. The inspection may result in revealing that the manufacturer installed a non-ignition protected starter motor on the engine. This is an important finding above and beyond what the interview with the operator revealed. The investigator could simply have chalked the explosion off to operator error but due to the thorough investigation the root cause is found to actually be a spark from the non-ignition protected starter motor. 

Now what follows is the most important aspect of the investigative process – what does the investigator do with this discovery? This information must be reported by the investigating officer into the Boating Accident Report Database system and, actually, should be reported by telephone or email to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Product Assurance Branch. The Product Assurance Branch constantly monitors news reports of boating accidents to determine if the cause of the accident may possibly have been a non-compliance with a manufacturer regulation such as the installation of a non-ignition protected starter motor or may possibly be a defective product that poses a substantial risk to the boat occupants. 

33 CFR 174.103(d) and (e) provide all of the guidance necessary to accomplish a notification. It’s up to the states (and territories) to get it done. Section (d) essentially says to do the investigation and section (e) says notify the Coast Guard in writing when a problem area in boating safety peculiar to the State is determined, together with corrective measures instituted OR recommended.

In the case of a non-ignition protected starter some would argue that the item is not peculiar to a state. That’s for the Coast Guard to decide. We would encourage any state or territory to submit this kind of information by the most rapid means available. This example is a classic case of non-compliance with the minimum safety standards found in 33 CFR Part 183.

Finding a non-ignition protected component installed by the manufacturer on a fairly new boat is extremely rare but an important discovery that could result in the recall of hundreds, if not thousands, of boats. Likewise, there may be other issues involving a regulatory non-compliance or a manufacturer defect; the U.S. Coast Guard depends heavily upon boating accident investigators to discover issues such as these and report them in a timely manner.

This brings me to the title of this article – why do we really do recreational boating accident investigations? The answer is simple – we do them to improve boating safety on the waters of the United States of America.

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