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New safety concern: skippers on cell phones

After investigations of two accidents involving Coast Guard boats, the National Transportation Safety Board is advising the Coast Guard, commercial vessel operators and the boating public to be aware that the use of cell phones is a distraction while under way.

The National Transportation Safety Board wants skippers to recognize that using a cell phone under way can be as distracting as using it on the highway.

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"The use of wireless communications devices while operating vehicles in any mode of transportation poses an unacceptable distraction," NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman says in an Aug. 11 release about cell phones on boats.

The press release deals mainly with safety recommendations for Coast Guard crews and commercial-vessel operators, but it also reminds pleasure boaters that cell phones are just as much a distraction for skippers as they are for landside drivers. They draw attention away from navigation.

"The risk associated with distractions from using wireless devices while operating a motor vehicle are well known, and the Safety Board believes that the boating public and commercial marine industry should be reminded that similar risks may exist on the water," the NTSB says.

The cell phone advisory makes sense, especially for boats that are going fast, navigating through heavy traffic or operating at night, says Thomas Rau, a retired Coast Guard senior chief who has been writing about boating safety for 25 years. "Unlike familiar situations that automobile drivers are accustomed to, the marine environment can offer a variety of sudden, unexpected and unfamiliar situations made even more challenging if a boater is distracted," he says. "That operator inattention and boat collisions are one of the leading causes of boating accidents could well be due, in part, to cell phone use."

His advice to boaters: "Chat away on the cell phone at the dock, but while under way stay forever vigilant while boating in close quarters, especially at night. It could well save your life." Operator inattention was the single biggest cause of accidents - 749 out of 4,730 - in 2009, according to the Coast Guard's Recreational Boating Statistics.

The NTSB makes two safety recommendations in its cell phone advisory. It says the Coast Guard should develop a comprehensive policy for the use of cell phones and wireless devices on its own vessels, and issue an advisory to the maritime industry detailing the risks associated with the use of wireless devices on boats and encouraging voluntary policies for cell phone use on commercial vessels.

The NTSB issued these safety recommendations after finding that crews on Coast Guard patrol boats involved in two collisions - one with a fatality - had been using cell phones while under way to "engage in text-messaging activities or conversations that were unrelated to vessel operations or the mission at hand."

In neither case was the coxswain - the vessel operator - using the cell phone, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson says, but the Coast Guard and NTSB take the position that all crew on a patrol boat should help keep a proper lookout.

"According to existing Coast Guard directives, coordination between boat crew team members is an essential element of risk management and safe vessel operation," the NTSB says in its safety recommendation. "The team approach to safe navigation requires the clear, frequent and accurate exchange of information between all crewmembers relative to the safe operation of the vessel. The use of a cellular telephone or other wireless device for personal communication or for activity unrelated to operations could impede the exchange of vital operational information, as well as delay reaction time."

The Coast Guard issued a cell phone policy July 16 that prohibits coxswains from using wireless devices while under way and bans the use of cell phones by other crewmembers on the boat unless the coxswain gives permission. The NTSB says the Coast Guard should beef up the policy and systematically identify specific risks associated with the distractions from cell phone use and address those risks.

The NTSB says it has yet to determine the cause or factors contributing to either of the Coast Guard accidents. In one of them, last December, a Coast Guard patrol boat returning from escorting a commercial vessel collided with the excursion boat Thriller 09, a Supercat 55 catamaran, in Charleston (S.C.) Harbor during a night Christmas light cruise. Six of 22 passengers on the Supercat were hurt.

Two weeks later, also in December, a Coast Guard patrol boat responding to a report of a grounded vessel collided with a pleasure boat carrying 13 passengers in San Diego Harbor - also at night - during a Parade of Lights. A child was killed, and four other people on the pleasure boat were seriously injured. The Coast Guard coxswain in that collision has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide.

The NTSB acknowledges that cell phones are useful as a backup to the VHF radio on boats, but "accidents caused by distractions from wireless devices must cease," NTSB chairman Hersman says. "Lives are being unnecessarily put at risk and lost."

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.