Agendas, Motivations, and Incentives Behind the Propeller Safety Debate

Propeller Guard and Propeller Safety Regulations – Understanding the Forces Behind the Scenes

There are many forces at work behind the scenes in the fight against propeller injuries, some promoting change and some promoting status quo. Below we briefly examine some of the motives, agendas and incentives behind the scenes. These statements are a mix of our observations, observations by others and published materials and statements. If any group spoken of below would like to contact us to clarify their agenda, motivations and incentives as listed below, we would be happy to post a brief statement from them.

Manufacturers –

  • Marine Drive manufacturers and Boat Builders – promote the status quo. For them, the use of any intervention device would involve change and it would be viewed by some (including those involved in lawsuits against them) as a signal of admission of a problem in the past. Until late 2002 (Sprietsma decision) they had Federal Pre-emption an automatic “get out of jail free card” and were not held responsible for propeller accidents regardless of the situation. Claiming propeller injury avoidance devices do not work or are not economically justifiable, their “camp” is squarely behind the “do nothing” mode. They do however actively, discredit proposed solutions in the media. In recent years Mercury Marine has led this charge. There are strong incentives (avoid losing in court, avoid adding extra cost to new boats, avoid possible costs of a recall / field fix of existing boats, preserve the lucrative revenue stream from new propeller sales, etc) encouraging this “camp” to push for the status quo. The same group is noticeably silent on mandatory boater safety education. With few public statements to go from, we suspect they strongly supporting boating safety education in general, but oppose mandatory boating safety education as it could reduce the “pool” of potential buyers and operators.
  • Propeller Guard and Propeller Injury Avoidance Device Manufacturers – often born from a serious local accident influencing an area inventor / tinkerer to develop a solution. These are generally small manufacturers. Poor acceptance by the industry has been hard on them. Several rely on alternative sources of income (manufacture other products to feed themselves). Some have leveraged some sales by cross selling to houseboat Carbon Monoxide issues and from electronic intervention devices. Like most manufacturers, their motivations are economic, but in this case, several are also motivated by emotional ties to accident victims, and by anger/frustration with the way their products have been treated and portrayed by the industry.

Commercial Operations –

  • Boat Rental Companies and National Park Boat Rental Concessionaires – Rental companies have strong incentives not to report accidents to the Coast Guard, or to the press. Any publication can make them look bad, reduce traffic levels to their site / “Park”, and decrease their cut of tourism dollars. Plus they know they are already under the microscope as several groups are focusing on rental boat accidents. To them a good accident is one that does not get reported. They are generally silent on mandatory boater safety education, probably because it could eliminate customers unwilling to be trained. Their motivations are economic and self preservation.
  • Excursion Boat Operators – like most companies, they generally oppose any proposed regulations, and sure don’t want to see their company name in the press associated with an accident. Sales could plummet. Most try to run a safe operation, but many operations are very small and focused on a lot of things at once. Some outside the U.S. are woefully prepared for accidents. Minimal communication between competitors limits the spread of best practices.

Trade Organizations –

  • National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) – in response to internal requests (probably from houseboat manufacturers and marine drive manufacturers) this large industry trade association encouraged those in the industry to file a form letter response against one of the recent proposals that would have required the use or propeller injury avoidance devices on displacement boats (houseboats and rental houseboats). Like many trade associations, their motivation is to provide a voice for their members, keep their members happy and keep membership dues rolling in.
  • Houseboat Industry Association (HIA) – an “affiliate” of the NMMA formed in recent years, apparently to help disseminate information and formulate a coordinated response to the highly publicized Carbon Monoxide issue. HIA is now taking on the propeller issue. They have a strong motivation to maintain the status quo. As with the drive companies, any change might send a signal they were doing something dangerous in the past, making them liable for propeller accidents, so they strongly resist propeller guards. HIA formed a joint front with the NMMA to fight to most recent proposed propeller regulations.
  • American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) – sort of a standards version of the NMMA, this group creates, publishes and sells industry standards. Historically they have been pretty silent on the issue, except for a contract with the Coast Guard to be in charge of holding several national meetings. Most recent meetings have been held in conjunction with Carbon Monoxide meetings at major trade shows. In August 2006, the ABYC announced formation of a “Product Interface Committee” to handle human interface issues, including propeller injuries. This may be a signal their members are recognizing the need to establish standards in this area before the government establishes some for them. Industries frequently choose self regulation to avoid much more complex regulations handed down from the federal level. ABYC is involved in the development of USCG’s Propeller Guard Test Protocol. More recently (2010/2011) ABYC has been promoting lengthening swim ladders to help prevent swimmers from getting their feet caught in propellers while boarding. They are also active in developing emergency kill switch standards which can stop boats in the Circle of Death. ABYC’s motivation is probably to help its members avoid complex federal regulations and to make money off selling the standards they create. Similar organizations and practices exist in many other industries, serving both their members and the public (by making the equipment safer).

Advocacy Groups – promote change. Several propeller advocacy groups have surfaced at one time or another, most notably:

  • SPIN (Stop Propeller Injuries Now) – a grass roots movement among those injured, surviving loved ones, and other interested parties. They promote propeller safety by encouraging regulatory action and other interventions. For about a decade and a half they have spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to keep the issue in the forefront and promoting regulatory actions (use of propeller guards, mandatory boating safety education, etc.). SPIN is strongly motivated by the emotions of accident victims, emotions of their loved ones and emotions of others impacted by these accidents (doctors, nurses, paramedics, etc). Individuals in the group may also motivated by the contempt they perceive industry has had for them, their families and their views in the past. SPIN’s leader harnesses these strong emotions and puts them to work, along with a never ending wave of “new recruits” from new accidents. They are the most recognized force for change.
  • Propeller Guard Information Center – we came on the scene gradually beginning in 1996, initially promoting the acceptance and implementation of “Virtual Propeller Guards” (the use of sensors to detect people in the water, combined with a system to take appropriate action to prevent injuries to those in the water). When industry failed to accept this approach, we broadened our base to become a clearinghouse of technical, patent and market research information to promote and assist in the development of all types of propeller injury avoidance devices. SPIN is more human, compassion, and feeling oriented, while we are more technically based. Our “camp” provides support to those trying to develop, provide and improve solutions to the problem. SPIN’s “camp” provides support to those suffering personal loss, plus an opportunity for them to become involved in the movement to bring about change and to help prevent others from being placed in their situation. Both camps (SPIN’s and ours) provide vast amounts of information online for those wishing to learn more about the issue and its history. Additional information about our “agenda” is in our Mission Statement.
  • Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy – represents concerns of small businesses about to be impacted by federal regulations. This group filed an objection to proposed displacement boat regulations stating the few accidents that do occur do not justify the costs as they calculated them. Similar to the NMMA, they were responding to requests from houseboat companies trying to fight off regulations. The SBA’s motivation may have been more of a “just doing our job” type of thing than some of the other groups involved. However, in my opinion, their response was either written by those not actually familiar with the situation, or written purposefully to mislead its readers. The cost figures were strongly inflated (called for hauling/dry docking the boat twice when they did not need dry docked once, certainly not twice, or if they did it could have been done as part of normal operations (when hauled for something else). Plus a chart supplied by them was misleading in which group of accidents was portrayed (all houseboats or only rental houseboats). Since houseboat companies tend to have fewer resources than larger marine companies to fight proposed regulations, the SBA report may have partially been influenced by the NMMA and larger marine companies outside the houseboat industry. The SBA Office of Advocacy is motivated by input from small businesses and perhaps a few lobbyists. Its pretty hard to imagine a group of small businesses saying they really like a proposed federal regulation of their industry and just can’t wait for it to go into effect. As a result most SBA Office of Advocacy “letters” oppose proposed regulations, recommend watering them down, recommend exempting small businesses or giving them longer to comply.
  • DAN Europe – operated a propeller injury reduction program for many years in Europe focusing on making waters safer for diving. Probably the mostly purely motivated group involved, they just want to keep themselves from being hit by a propeller.
  • Institute for Injury Reduction (IIR) – in response to several very bad propeller accidents in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s a group of trial lawyers formed the IIR to share and exchange information on the legal front against manufacturers, similar to methods used to fight “Big Tobacco” at that time. IIR has since disbanded, perhaps due to success of the Federal Pre-Emption defense.

Individual Boating Safety Advocates –

  • Several individuals in the U.S. and around the world are survivor advocates for boat propeller safety. They or their loved ones have been severely injured or killed. These individuals want their loved ones not to have died in vain. Many are also angry at the manner in which the industry has responded to them. Some want to put guards on all boats. Others want to pass bills/regulations named for their loved one. They choose to work alone outside of SPIN for personal reasons or due to being outside the U.S. Some work within SPIN while maintaining their own efforts as well.

Boating Safety Organizations / Boating Safety Administrators / Boating Safety Law Enforcement –

  • The U.S. Coast Guard acts somewhat as a “referee” between the two sides of the issue. USCG collects, maintains and reports recreational boating accident data, implements/encourages safety programs (boat inspections, boater educations, publish safety literature, test safety products), plus they propose regulations to limit boating injuries. They use NASBLA (see below) as an advisory group, and try to respond to issues raised by the public. The Coast Guard occasionally publishes requests for input on propeller safety issues, propeller injury avoidance devices, and proposed propeller safety regulations. These requests tend to be hammered by negative comments from the boating industry, which are countered comments from victims and their families, plus hundreds of form letter responses from both sides (pro change form letters supplied by SPIN and status quo form letters supplied by the NMMA) resulting in another stalemate, meaning the “status quo” stays in effect.
  • National Boating Safety Advisory Council (NBSAC) – sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, they act as an advisory group on boating safety issues. NASBLA was established by the Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971. The Dept of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard consult with this group when prescribing Federal regulations and other safety matters for recreational boats. NASBLA meets twice a year. They consist of 21 members appointed by the Secretary of Homeland Security. Members are chosen from the state boating safety officials, the boating industry, national recreational boating organizations, and the general public. Depending on their makeup at the time, the group may tend to lean a little more one way than the other, but has historically not strongly supported broad action against propeller injuries. However, in more recent times they have advanced several proposals to reduce propeller injuries. In this field, NBSAC is best known for their 1989 Propeller Guard Subcommittee Report.
  • National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) – an organization of Boating Law Administrators from the various states. Their primary purposes are to act as a forum for the state boating administrators to visit with one another on boating enforcement and safety issues and to provide a vehicle for their voices to be heard when addressing national issues. NASBLA would like to see boating accident counts go down, but their members are a bit removed from the technical issues involved. As individuals, state boating administrators provide a great service to the boating public by enforcing the laws and keeping the waters safe. Their association follows developments in the propeller safety arena. A report from their September 22-27, 2006 meeting in Kentucky shows them falling into the trap of misinterpreting USCG BARD Event 1 data. They report “Approximately 30 to 50 propeller strikes are reported each year.” when in fact that is the number of fatalities reported and the actual number of prop accidents reported in BARD is on the nature of 180 to 240. NASBLA is currently recommending the use of an engine cutoff device (kill switch) as a means to reduce propeller injuries.

Boating Communities and Regions-

  • Boating Communities – areas with strong tourism where boating and boating related activities draw in a large percentage of tourism dollars have a strong incentive not to publish boating accidents in the local paper. Especially now with so many “crawlers” scanning online versions of local newspapers aggregating those reports into larger services which spread knowledge of their local accident around the globe making a negative impression on potential tourists, resulting in lost revenue to the community and those in it relying on boating dollars.
  • The State of California – California is obviously a very strong boating state. While their people in the field (officers on the water) are great people trying to enforce the laws and keep the water safe, up in the sky. State of California administrators have economic reasons to promote boating (a good thing in itself to do), at the expense of foregoing the publishing and distribution of full boating accident reports to the U.S. Coast Guard and other organizations including the media, citing the information is confidential. It’s hard not to imagine them thinking a boating accident in the news is bad press and bad press is bad for the California economy. Mandatory boater safety education has recently been a hot topic there. It fails to gain overwhelming support from state administrators / leaders probably because forcing education would reduce the total number of boaters, thus reducing the economic impact of boating. Their motivations are economic and a concern for privacy of its citizens records.

Government Incentives –

  • Measurable Results – The Coast Guard has a problem that is often overlooked. USCG is now part of Homeland Security. Back when USCG was part of the Department of Transportation (DOT), DOT was strongly leaning on USCG to provide clear cut, numerical, measurable evidence of results. Meaning the DOT wanted to see accidents, injuries, deaths, and financial losses going down and they want to see them going down now! Other fields of vehicular transportation (planes, trains, buses, trucks, automobiles and ships) have a long, pretty thorough history of reporting accidents to compare against. The U.S. Coast Guard has been collecting boating accident data for decades and publishing annual summaries. A close reading of those summaries notes the Coast Guard’s admission that only a small fraction of boating accidents are actually being reported. For a long time, USCG estimated only about 10 percent of all boating accidents meeting their criteria were reported, meaning 90 percent of boating accidents went unreported. More recent estimates of unreported accidents have been much higher even though USCG is making efforts to increase reporting percentages, which may result in a higher number of accidents reported each year, which results in making them look bad. USCG’s safety efforts may have actually eliminated some accidents and reduced the severity of others, but with a larger percentage of accidents being reported, the total number being reported may grow. This results in no or lower raises for some in positions of authority. If you were in their shoes, how hard would you be out there digging trying to identify more accidents when every one you found got you yelled at and reduced your pay. Plenty of incentive here for a less than stellar effort to identify and report accidents. Plus, it plays well with the marine drive manufacturers and boatbuilders. They don’t want any accidents being reported, it looks bad to the public and it’s bad for sales. I am certainly not suggesting any collusion between the Coast Guard and the industry, I am just suggesting the industry might take them out for a beer and pat them on the back a few times when the injury counts go down. Its not hard to imagine industry response next year if all the accidents were reported (about ten times as many as are currently reported per USCG estimates). The press would have a hay day with it and the industry would be livid! This situation is definitely one with the wrong incentives in place.
  • Workplace Safety – outside the U.S. we are seeing groups like our Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) get involved in propeller safety issues in commercial diving and military applications. These government agencies are trying to keep people safe in the workplace.
  • Federal Pre-Emption – As mentioned elsewhere, in recent years prior to December 2002, Federal Pre-Emption was an automatic escape from propeller injury cases. The industry just said the U.S. Coast Guard did has not required the use of propeller guards and according the Federal Boating Safety Act (FBSA) of 1971 individual states can’t require them either so you are out of luck, case dismissed. Federal Pre-Emption provided a very strong incentive of the industry to do nothing. If they did start employing some sort of propeller injury avoidance device they would no longer be able to hide behind the automatic “get out of jail free card”. So they didn’t.