Could Firestone Fiasco Happen In Boating?
of catastrophic tire failures, auto accidents and corporate
cover-ups of safety defects garnered banner headlines in recent
months. The recall of 6.5 million Bridgestone/Firestone tires
and federal investigations into related rollover accidents
involving Ford and GM SUVs and light duty trucks have brought
to light glaring weaknesses in the federal program that oversees
the nation’s cars and highways.
Testimony at Congressional hearings last fall detailed major
flaws in the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration
(NHTSA) automobile safety program, leading BoatUS to wonder
how recreational vessel safety regulations stack up against
those for motor vehicles and what lessons boating might learn
from this national tragedy.
out, we compared NHTSA’s program with a similar
one administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, the federal agency
that oversees the recreational boating industry.
the Coast Guard’s product assurance program
were first empowered to regulate safety on the nation’s
highways and waterways during what’s come to be known
as the “consumer decade” of 1965 to 1975, when
Congress passed a number of groundbreaking laws to protect
Both agencies were given the same mandate: To write manufacturing
standards, conduct product tests, investigate possible defects
and initiate recall campaigns; and the same goal: To reduce
accidents, injuries and fatalities. The amount of resources
dedicated to these respective programs over the years has resulted
in significant differences in how each consumer protection
What’s Covered, What’s Not
standards for motor vehicles cover virtually all components
The standards start with the controls within the
driver’s reach, run through door locks and wheel nuts
and extend all the way to flammability of interior materials.
are defined as any aspect of performance, construction, components
materials that poses “an unreasonable risk
of accidents” and the “unreasonable risk of death
and injury” if accidents occur. By focussing on the potential
for accidents, the law gives authorities power to initiate
recall action before catastrophes occur.
In contrast, federal boat safety standards are limited in
scope. For example, maximum horsepower, persons and weight
capacities and flotation requirements apply only to boats under
20 feet. Fuel and electrical system requirements apply only
to vessels with permanently installed gasoline engines. Ventilation
standards apply only to boats with permanently installed engines
or fuel tanks located in enclosed compartments. Start-in-gear
protection is required only on boats equipped with outboard
engines rated for over 115 hp. There are no federal standards
for hull materials or construction, glazing materials, handholds
or safety rails or through-hull fittings.
fall into two categories: Issues of non-compliance with federal
requirements and safety defects that “create
a substantial risk of personal injury.” The latter have
come to be defined as defects which occur without warning and
which cause death or traumatic injury. Defects posing potential,
rather than actual, peril are not investigated. Unlike laws
for autos, boat laws were written to react to problems rather
than being proactive.
during the late 1980s, Amerosport 250 models built by Murray
Craft contained structural defects that
caused hull cracks. The manufacturer cut the boats’ longitudinal
frames or stringers to make it easier to install drain lines.
Company officials knew this weakened the boats, but they didn’t
warn owners. Chris Craft voluntarily recalled the Amerosports
only after BoatUS publicized the problem.
Guard, meanwhile, declined to act on reports from BoatUS
Amerosports and hundreds of other Chris Craft
boats with hull problems because there are no federal regulations
for hull construction. The Coast Guard also said it could find
no indication of a “substantial risk” hull defect
linking several drowning deaths to Chris Craft boats that sank.
When the political tide of the 1980s turned back the consumer
wave of the 1960s and 1970s, funding for regulatory agencies
was slashed. The first Coast Guard programs to get thrown overboard
were factory visits and independent boat testing.
The original plan was to visit all boat factories annually
to review compliance with federal regulations. In response
to cutbacks, the agency zeroed in on smaller builders, arguing
that they were less likely to have in-house engineering staffs
familiar with federal regulations.
By the early 1990s, however, factory inspector billets were
eliminated and inspections were no longer scheduled on a regular
basis. By 1995 the inspection program was scrapped altogether.
took the issue to Congress and in 1998 the Coast Guard was
with $2 million to restart inspections.
The Coast Guard hired an outside contractor that will begin
visiting factories this month. Observers are concerned, however,
because this new program is focussing on the smallest builders.
Once again, an independent observer will not check the lion’s
share of recreational boats.
somewhat better because its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP)
in full swing and highly popular with the
public before cutbacks got underway. Each year, NCAP crash
tests all new car models to see how they protect drivers and
passengers who are wearing seatbelts. Results, as well as recall
data, are available at NHTSA’s Web site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov,
or by calling 888-DASH2DOT.
In contrast, boat tests are limited to checks for compliance
with flotation standards that apply only to boats 20 feet or
less. Boats are not evaluated for electrical, fuel and ventilation
system standards or to see if they are rated properly for persons,
weight and horsepower capacity.
of budget limitations, the Coast Guard tests only a few dozen
each year, usually selecting ones made by
small builders. The Coast Guard does not publish results of
its boat tests. Those that fail are recalled, however, and
that information is available at the Coast Guard’s Web
and the Coast Guard rely heavily on consumers for input about
in the field. They also require manufacturers
to report safety problems, but there are no provisions for
looking over manufacturers’ shoulders to make sure they
actually do so.
Investigations into auto and boat defects differ significantly,
even though NHTSA and the Coast Guard initially set out on
the same highway. Both check reports submitted by consumers
as well as manufacturer records for information about failures.
After this stage is completed, the Coast Guard pulls off the
road and makes its determination whether to move into a recall
NHTSA goes considerably farther, checking with repair facilities
and issuing advisories to the media to generate further reports
from the public. The agency can also impound vehicles involved
in accidents that may be the result of defects.
NHTSA is usually able to balance manufacturers’ data
against multiple car owner reports, the Coast Guard may be
working with only one or two isolated complaints. Complaint
files are often closed if the boat manufacturer denies there’s
the Coast Guard’s toll free InfoLine, 800-368-5647,
is available for reporting defects, but the number’s
lengthy recorded message gives no instructions for doing so.
BoatUS recommends pressing “0” to speak with
Finally, the public can petition NHTSA to investigate not
just their own complaints about possible defects, but also
overall problems that may occur in other vehicles. By law,
NHTSA must publish any citizen petitions that are denied. Boat
safety laws contain no provisions for public petitions.
initial investigation indicates a possible defect, the agency
sets up a public meeting so that the manufacturer
and other interested parties can present their views.
proceeds with a recall, the manufacturer is required to contact
using information “reasonably ascertainable” from
state records and other sources.
Recall requirements currently apply to motor vehicles up to
eight years from the date of first purchase, but the statute
will soon be extended to 10 years. Remedies, including repair,
replacement or refund, must be made at no charge to the consumer.
statute for boats lasts for five years from the date of construction,
not the time of purchase. Manufacturers
are required to use “reasonable diligence” in establishing
and maintaining purchaser lists for the purpose of defect notification.
There are no requirements for keeping records on used boats.
More extensive owner record requirements were deemed by the
Coast Guard to create excessive paperwork. Consequently, defect
notification efforts are inadequate and many owners never learn
that their boats are unsafe, especially second owners.
to this problem, BoatUS recently established the BoatUS
Recall Alert Registry, an online database
that allows owners to record boat information, which is then
made available only to that boat’s manufacturer in the
event of a recall.
“Owners should participate in the National Recall Alert
Registry at the BoatUS Web site, www.BoatUS.com,” urges
BoatUS Chairman Richard Schwartz. The National Recall Alert
NHTSA has collected an average of $14.7 million per year in
fines from manufacturers since the motor vehicle safety program
began in 1969.
On the other hand, Coast Guard civil penalties for withholding
defect information may not be much of a deterrent. For example,
a maximum fine of $2,000 can be imposed for a boat violation.
No one can recall this ever happening to a boat builder
authority to pursue criminal cases against companies that
sell vehicles that cause injuries or death.
This authority will be expanded as a result of company cover-up
efforts in the Bridgestone/Firestone affair.
Boat safety laws, however, impose no criminal penalties on
companies that withhold information from or mislead the Coast
A Safe Approach
Concealing information about safety defects can come back
to haunt companies who may face product liability lawsuits.
Rather than hiding behind statute and standard limitations,
some companies take the high road and initiate recall campaigns
to head off problems.
Tiara/S2 Yachts made waves last year by voluntarily recalling
of boats because of aluminum fuel tank failures
due to corrosion from bilge water. Tiara’s actions seem
to have prompted at least two other manufacturers, Silverton
Yachts and Luhrs (see article Luhrs
Fuel Tank Alert), to initiate
similar fuel tank campaigns on their boats.
regulations do not address tank installations relative to
bilges of boats, nor must tank materials be
tested for corrosion resistance. Thus, the Coast Guard took
no active role in the recalls, nor did the builders’ voluntary
actions move the Coast Guard to make a comprehensive investigation
into how widespread this problem really is with all makes and
they didn’t need to — they already knew.
In 1992, Underwriters Laboratories engineers working under
a Coast Guard grant to study fuel tanks found a high failure
rate when aluminum tanks are exposed to bilge water. UL reported
that most corrosion failures were on the bottoms of tanks that
had “waterline” marks showing they’d repeatedly
been exposed to the contents of the bilge.
The Coast Guard apparently took no action to expand fuel tank
regulations because UL determined that most failures occur
at 61/2 years, just after the federal five-year statute for
boat defects expires.
If there is such a thing as a positive outcome to the Bridgestone/Firestone
affair it is that consumer safety is once again in the forefront.
Congress has required NHTSA to overhaul its safety program
within the next two years. Newly-passed reform legislation
requires the agency to update its tire standard, change how
it collects information from manufacturers and beef up the
civil and criminal penalties the agency can impose.
At the moment, the Coast Guard does not appear to be under
any pressure to lighten up and improve its administration of
the laws governing the way boats are built. Neither Congress
nor the boating public is clamoring for action and the new
Administration is expected to have its hands full with more
the potential for widespread accidents and fatalities due
equipment or design is much less in boating
than it is with automobiles, new procedures to ensure that
seemingly isolated events are not dismissed out of hand – as
they were by NHTSA for nearly four years as nearly 150 people
died – does not yet appear to be in the Coast Guard’s
One way to reverse this course is to let Congress know that
years of federal disinterest has produced a severely deflated
boating safety program that needs to be put back on an even
on “defective” boats
or provide information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
BoatUS Magazine, January 2001