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Could Firestone Fiasco Happen In Boating?

Reports 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.

To find 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.

NHTSA and 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 the public.

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 program developed.

Defects Defined:
What’s Covered, What’s Not

Federal standards for motor vehicles cover virtually all components and systems. 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.

Defects are defined as any aspect of performance, construction, components or 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.

Boat defects 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.

For example, during the late 1980s, Amerosport 250 models built by Murray Chris 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.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, declined to act on reports from BoatUS about 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.

Product Testing

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.

But BoatUS took the issue to Congress and in 1998 the Coast Guard was provided 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.

NHTSA fared somewhat better because its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) was 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.

Because of budget limitations, the Coast Guard tests only a few dozen boats 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 site, www.uscgboating.org.

Reporting, Investigating

Both NHTSA and the Coast Guard rely heavily on consumers for input about defects 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 campaign.

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.

So, whereas 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 a problem.

Ironically, 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 an attendant.

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.

If NHTSA’s 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.

Recall Requirements

If NHTSA proceeds with a recall, the manufacturer is required to contact owners 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.

The recall 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.

In response to this problem, BoatUS recently established the BoatUS National 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 Registry (http://www.boatamerica.org/recall).

Penalties

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

NHTSA’s authority to pursue criminal cases against companies that knowingly 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 Guard.

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.

For example, Tiara/S2 Yachts made waves last year by voluntarily recalling hundreds 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.

Federal regulations do not address tank installations relative to placement in 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 models.

But then, 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.

What’s Ahead

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 important matters.

Although the potential for widespread accidents and fatalities due to defective 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 radar screen.

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 keel.

To comment on “defective” boats or provide information contact cajootian@boatus.com.

(c) Copyright BoatUS Magazine, January 2001

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