History of Lanyard Kill Switches for Recreational Boats: Inventions, Regulations, Accidents, and Trials

Kill Switch Lanyard

Lanyard photo courtesy of The U.S. Coast Guard

Although the U.S. Coast Guard is still considering regulations that would require boat builders to install kill switches (emergency engine cut-off switches) in all new recreational boats below a certain length and separately considering making their use mandatory, they have been on the market for over 30 years.

The basic problem of unmanned boats going in circles (the Circle of Death) has been known a long time. The earliest example we have found was reported 14 July 1935 in the New York Times. Two young men on the Potomac River were ejected, the boat began to circle at full throttle, they dove repeatedly to try to escape to boat and propeller, one was eventually struck in the head and drowned, the other was struck in the shoulder.

By the early 1950ʼs boat kill switches of multiple designs were used in National Outboard Racing Association boats.

George Horton, of Fort Worth Texas, applied for a patent on his “Quick Kill” recreational boat kill switch on 29 November 1972. He received U.S. Patent 3,786,892 on 22 January 1974, and entered productions with the “Quick Kill” kill switch in August 1974. His switch is widely viewed as the first commercially available kill switch designed specifically for use in recreational boats, vs. the earlier racing designs.

Horton Kill Switch Patent

Horton Kill Switch Patent

UPDATE – While Horton’s “Quick Kill” is widely viewed as the first recreational kill switch on the market, we came across an interesting article covering another switch a just little earlier. Powerful Fishing Rigs Can be Deadly. The Oklahoman. January 24, 1974. Page 26.
“Ernie McBride of M and M Marine, has designed a kill switch with a cord and alligator clip that attaches to the boat driver’s clothing. Should the boat lurch for any reason, like hitting a log or the steering fail, and the driver be thrown from the seat, the cord will pull and turn the engine off, killing the engine.”
The article reports the kill switch is in a boat M&M will be showing at the Midwest Boat Travel Boat Sport and Travel Show which opens Friday at the fairgrounds.

Still others developing kill switches for recreational boats in this era and even earlier include:
1. Dr. Allen J. Tomlin (published in the May/June 1973 issue of Bassmaster magazine and U.S. Patent 3,889,089 filed in December 1973 with an October 1972 priority date, then issued in June 1975).
2. Mars Safety Switch Company (advertising theirs in the Feb/Mar 1974 issue of American Bass Fisherman).

3. L.J. Murdock, U.S. Patent 3,210,494 issued in 1965.

In October 1973 Vernon Fowlkes, a supplier to the bass fishing and bass tournament industry from Tulsa Oklahoma, was killed during the 1973 Bassmaster Classic III tournament in South Carolina. As part of a group of celebrities at the tournament, Fowlkes, a sportswriter, and a local bass fisherman were headed back for the weigh in, the steering cable broke, the boat ejected all three men, circled, and the propeller fatally struck Mr. Fowlkes. Ray Scott, the well known bass tournament promoter, is said to have created a rule requiring all bass boats used in his tournaments to have a kill switch as a result of this accident.

In August 1974, Popular Mechanics published an article titled, “This Switch Can Save Your Life: Now Required for Racing, and Tournament Fishing. This is Boatingʼs Newest Necessity”, assailing the features and benefits of Mercuryʼs Quicksilver Ignition Stop Switch.

The issue of using kill switches as a means of stopping runaway boats was raised as a member item at U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) National Boating Safety Advisory Council (NBSAC) Spring 1976 meeting.

NBSAC 1979 Kill Switch Report Page 1

NBSAC 1979 Kill Switch Preventable Fatalities Report

A presentation on boating fatalities that could be avoided by the use of kill switches, “Presentation of 1975 and 1977 Reported Boating Fatalities Preventable by a Kill Switch”, was given at the Spring 1979 NBSAC meeting. Interestingly, it is quite similar to a document prepared by USCG titled, “Casualties Preventable by the Use of an Engine Cut-Off Switch” included in the USCG-2009-0206 docket published as an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in June 2011. The front page of the 1979 document is provided here.

July/August 1975 Boating Magazine letter to the editor wonders why the Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety failed to mention kill switches in their response to a letter in May. The current commenter talks about runaway boats coming at those who fell overboard in ever decreasing circles, says kill switches are required in bass fishing tournaments, and are sold by many marinas.

1978, 1979, and 1980 saw the Valerie Bailey v. Boatland of Houston trial and its appeals. Bailey v. Boatland was one of the first cases against the industry for injuries allegedly caused by their failure to install kill switches. Sam Bailey was killed on 27 May 1973 at Lake Livingston (Texas) in an accident involving a circling 16 foot bass boat that was claimed to be defective because it did not include a kill switch. Much of the litigation centered on timing (date of building the boat, date of the accident, date of invention of kill switch, date kill switches for recreational boats became commercially available). The boating industry won the case in the trial court, lost the first appeal, then won again in Texas Supreme Court. The Texas Supreme Court took a hard line on commercial availability of kill switches for recreational boats vs. easily adapted from racing boats or other applications. There was also some discussion of the responsibility of the dealer (Boatland) vs. that of the manufacturer during the trials.

1979 Alabama passed a law requiring the mandatory use of kill switch lanyards on certain boats.

More Recent History

  • 2000, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) recognized Bill Garner with its NASBLAʼs Lifetime Achievement Award for his work resulting in the implementation of kill switch requirements on certain boats in Alabama in 1979 that resulted in fewer fall overboard deaths, and other boating safety projects in his career.
  • 30 December 2002 National Transportation Safety Board releases safety recommendations following the 12 Janauray 2012 accident involving 24 foot Coast Guard vessel in which the kill switch failed to activate during a collision. Both crew members were ejected and the boat circled.
  • 1-4 November 2003, NBSAC passed a resolution (Resolution BAES 1) asking NASBLA to create a Model Act for the enforcement of the wear of emergency engine cut-off switches on boats equipped with them. The Model Act was to parallel the current PWC lanyard requirements.
  • March 2004 NMMA published results of a survey of each state’s requirements on the use of kill cords.
  • 15 September 2004 NASBLA membership adopted the kill switch model act described above.
  • 17 November 2004, MariTech filed for their Virtual Lifeline / CAST patent for a virtual lanyard kill switch. Their application, US 2006/0105643, was published on 18 May 2006. It resulted in U.S. Patent 7,083,482, issued August 1, 2006.
  • 21 September 2005, NASBLA membership updated and approved their kill switch model law to include the emerging wireless technologies now being used in kill switches.
  • 21 September 2005 NASBLA approved and published a Model Act for kill switches so states can adopt a uniform law if they wish.
  • 20-22 July 2005 Maritech Industries received the Boating Writers International / NMMA Innovation of the Year Award for Safety for its Virtual Lifeline/CAST system at MAATS in Las Vegas.
  • December 2005 MAIB (UK) releases investigative report “of two people being thrown from a high-speed rigid inflatable boat with the loss of their lives in Milarrochy Bay, Loch Lomond, UK on 13 March 2005.”
  • 1-4 April 2006 NBSAC passed Resolution Number 2006-77-02 (Boat Builder Engine Cut-off Switch Installation Requirement) and Resolution 2006-77-4 (Required Use of Engine Cut-off Switch Link).
  • October 2006. Industry Critics Say Kill Switch Rule is Overkill. Melanie Winters. Soundings Trade Only. Industry execs put forth many objections to the proposed kill switch rule.
  • November 2006 BoatUS Magazine publishes BoatUS Foundation report titled, “Keeping Up With Kill Switches”. A series of tests are performed on traditional and wireless kill switches.
  • 14 January 2007, MariTech Industries received the 2006 Canadian Safe Boating Council (CASBC) Award for the marine industry for its Virtual Lifeline/CAST system.
  • 10 April 2007, U.S. Patent 7,201,619 issued to Autotether for their virtual lanyard kill switch that physically pulls out the “key”.
  • 14 May 2008 USCG report, Casualties Preventable by the Use of an Engine Cut-off Switch. Revised 16 October 2009. Quite similar in concept to the earlier USCG study of 1975 and 1977 data mentioned at the top of this page.
  • July 2009 ABYC updates ABYC A-33 Emergency Engine/Propulsion Cut-Off Device standard.
  • 8 June 2011, the April 2006 NBSAC resolutions resulted in USCG-2009-0206, the kill switch Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking being published in the Federal Register today.
  • 19 August 2011 NMMA/ABYC/BoatUS Engine Cut-Off Lanyard Test Program submitted as NMMA public comment to USCG-2009-0206. It shows increase in time to hookup kill switch and start boats and to stop them, and increase in time to swap operators when using kill switches. NMMA says those times are minimal and supports the use of kill switches.
  • 29 August 2011, we (PGIC) disclosed a series of five RFID Kill Switch inventions related to the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technologies incorporated into a life jacket / personal floatation device (PFD) for use a boat kill switch when combined with an RFID reader based kill switch system.
  • 1 Sept 2011 we (PGIC) wrote a piece titled, Propeller Safety History Repeats Itself about similarities in USCG’s 2009 proposal for installing kill switches in all boats below a certain length and an earlier 1979 USCG effort.
  • 30 June 2012 in the absence of kill switch lanyard wear rate estimates by others, we estimated wear rates from U.S. Coast Guard Boating Accident Report Database (BARD) data.
  • 5 May 2013 a major accident in the UK (Nicholas Milligan family) turned the spotlight on the use of kill cords there. Many discussions came from that event.
  • May 2013, a petition making wearing of kill cords mandatory in the UK is launched in the wake of the Milligan accident.
  • 17 May 2013 MAIB issues kill cord warning, Safety Bulletin 1/2013 in the UK in the wake of the Milligan accident.
  • June 2013 MotorBoat & Yachting (UK) published Kill Cords:Can We Do Better. a major feature that blossomed into a major study, The Truth About Kill Cords, in their September 2013 issue in which ten or more well known firms supplied their responses to several kill switch related questions.
  • 2 June 2013 we published a UK History of the Boat Kill Cord and Propeller Safety Movement in response to the Milligan accident.
  • July 2013 Powerboat & RIB magazine distributed a wear your kill cord warning label with their July 2013 issue in response to the Milligan accident.
  • 26 July 2013 we published a UK Boat Kill Cord and Propeller Safety Interactive Timeline in response to the Milligan accident.
  • September 2013 Motorboat & Yachting publishes, The Truth About Kill Cords, in response to the Milligan accident.
  • 30 September 2013 BBC Inside Out South West aired an investigative report on boat kill cord safety in response to the Milligan accident.
  • 13 March 2014, the McClure fatality here in Oklahoma and the news video of the bass boat relentlessly circling brought home the fact these accidents continue to happen and root causes have not been addressed approaching four decades after the Coast Guard first looked into the problem.
  • 20 March 2014 we publishes a list of Bass Boat Operators Ejected Underway in Open Water. Many of these accidents resulted in unmanned, circling boats as kill switches were not present or lanyards were not used.
  • 25 May 2014 Texas Parks & Wildlife Game Warden, Henry Alvarado, ejected, struck by prop, and critically injured on Lake Sam Rayburn.
  • 31 May 2014 Boat Kill Switches are a Matter of Life and Death. Shannon Tompkins. Houston Chronicle.
  • 31 May 2014 Brandon Ellingson drowns in custody of (see correction in comments below and following this statement for who he was in custody of) when ejected handcuffed and his life jacket came off. Some say he should have been wearing a virtual lanyard.
    Per a Missouri officer, “Please be advised the May 31, 2014 death of Brandon Ellingson was not while he was in the custody of the Missouri Water Patrol. He was in the custody of a part-time Marine Operations Trooper of the Missouri Highway Patrol. The Missouri Water Patrol’s existence ended with a merger, forced by the state’s Governor, with the Highway Patrol. There is little similarity in the two agencies.”
  • 4 July 2014 three boats crash at Dinner Key in South Florida, resulting in four fatalities and several being critically injured. One large boat circles in the circle of death with its remaining passengers incapacitated by the crash. Rescuers pull passengers from the water to safety as the boat circles. Trever Bach of Miami New Times writes an article on how Florida could save lives by making it mandatory to wear kill switch lanyards.

Thanks to SPIN

Thanks to Stop Propeller Injuries Now (SPIN) for allowing us to borrow some items from their kill switches history. We both maintain our own history of kill switch events but we share some of the individual entries back and forth.


  1. Lieutenant Dave Wall

    Please be advised the May 31, 2014 death of Brandon Ellingson was not while he was in the custody of the Missouri Water Patrol. He was in the custody of a part-time Marine Operations Trooper of the Missouri Highway Patrol. The Missouri Water Patrol’s existence ended with a merger, forced by the state’s Governor, with the Highway Patrol. There is little similarity in the two agencies.

    • Thanks for pointing out the correct group that had Mr. Ellingson in custody. Sorry about our mistake. We were repeating other news reports of the accident that were incorrect. Thanks again for the correction.

      • Hi Gary,

        I wanted to find out if there has been any further action in regards to the proposed A-33 Standard requiring the use of engine cutoff switches on new boats 26 feet and under. Thanks!

        • The regulation is still stalled (several years later). The Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety has been asked point blank about it many times. They just say it is stalled somewhere above them. SPIN (Stop Propeller Injuries Now) has been mounting a major campaign to try to knock it loose by getting many boating safety organizations to sign on and call for the resolution, but all we ever hear is its stuck upstairs somewhere. Thanks for your interest and thanks for developing a great product. We hear lots of good things about CoastKey.


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