Engine Cutoff Switches – Why are they so hard to use?


Since its first meeting in 1960, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators has developed a wide range of recreational boating safety public policy. Resolutions, model acts, model procedures and other documents have helped make boating safer for all on our nation’s waters. 

Unfortunately, very few states have enacted NASBLA’s Model Act on the Use of Engine Cut-off Switches, originally adopted by the membership Sept. 15, 2004.

Read more and comment below.

The act requires the operator of a motorboat equipped with an engine cutoff switch to use this safety feature while the engine is running and the vessel is underway, and to attach the cutoff switch link to their person, clothing or personal flotation device. In the event the operator falls overboard or otherwise is moved from the normal operating position, the switch would immediately shut off the engine. This model act as well as others, is available on NASBLA’s website at http://www.nasbla.org/modelacts.

The six states that have adopted the model act have done so as the result of horrific accidents that drew public attention within the state and captured legislative action.

States that have adopted engine cutoff switch model act

StateVessel TypeECOS EquippedWearOther
Alabama • Less than 24 feet
• open construction
• > 50 horsepower
(no length requirement)
YYEngine is used to propel boat forward
Louisiana• Motorboat <26’
• Hand tiller outboard
• > 10 horsepower
YYMust be attached to the operator while the motor is running and the vessel is underway
IllinoisMotorboat, including PWC
(no length requirement)
NevadaMotorboatYYSpeed of 5 nautical miles or greater
New JerseyMotorboatYYOperators required to wear the lanyard cut-off switch on vessels so equipped

At last count, 46 states or territories have rules for cutoff switches on personal watercraft. This makes it seem that risks are greater on a PWC than on an open motorboat.

Why wait for tragedy to enact laws for safety? Engine cutoff switches and lanyards have been standard equipment on boats for almost 35 years. It’s an easy piece of safety equipment to use – the boater doesn’t have to buy anything, just clip it.

We need to tackle the perception of risk. In the states that enacted regulations pointed at tiller mounted outboards, they successfully made a case based on risk. I would like to see NASBLA and the National Boating Safety Advisory Council take a position – much in the way they did for mandatory life jacket wear – and target open motorboats based on size/length. From there it becomes an easier case to take to state legislators, based on accident data – and what we know happens in small open boats, when the operator is ejected when not wearing the lanyard. As a boater, I make my boating decisions based on risk. For example:

When I’m on my sailboat in seas greater than four feet or if alone, I use a safety harness. If I fall overboard, I can’t re-board without help. Forget the fact that the boat will sail away without me…

When I’m in my center console motorboat, I clip on the cut-off switch lanyard. With a low-sided hull, it’s easy to be ejected from this type boat.

When on our pontoon boat, I never wear the cutoff switch lanyard. On this vessel, there is a very low perception of risk. Shame on me.

I think of myself as an average boater, and a law that would require me to wear the lanyard, in all cases, would be no imposition on my activity – other than requiring me to develop a new habit.

Let’s lead by example and as a community of law enforcement professionals, use every teaching moment to share the reality we see in so many needless accidents, ejections, prop strike accidents, fatalities and injuries.

Allow me to introduce our longtime associate member SPIN. Stop Propeller Injuries Now (SPIN) is a passionate advocacy group whose members have experienced up close and personal the tragedy of prop strike accidents. They work hard every day to press for reform and behavior change, and NASBLA supports this group at every turn. You can help us do better by taking advantage of every interaction with boaters. All you have to say is “Clip it.”

The NASBLA Enforcement & Training Committee has produced a new video to help drive the message home to our law enforcement partners on the water. The video is a real-life story of two Tennessee Wildlife officers who were ejected from their patrol boat after hitting a submerged log. The operator had the engine cutoff switch attached and they were both wearing life jackets (inflatables). One of the inflatables was rendered useless during the ejection and both officers made their way to shore thanks to the one functioning inflatable. Watch for this dramatic video release at the NASBLA Annual Conference in Seattle this September.

When we make the message real to law enforcement professionals and credit their training, perhaps the message we deliver to the recreational boater will have the right impact to change behavior before we answer the next call to another needless fatality on the water.

cutoff switch labelNOTE: Updated labeling from ABYC. Remember to remind boaters to read all warning labels. It may save a life.

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