Mind the kill switch: New boater safety law in effect

Under a new federal law that went into effect April 1, 2021, the operator of any powerboat less than 26 feet in length overall (LOA) must wear an engine cutoff switch while operating a boat above no wake speed. Commonly referred to by recreational boaters as “kill switches,” the proper term for these devices is engine cut-off switch (“ECOS”). This term encompasses both physical lanyards and wireless options.

ECOS kill switch lanyard

A lanyard ECOS physically attaches the vessel operator to a switch that shuts off the engine if the operator is displaced from the helm. When the operator gets too far away from the helm, the lanyard disengages from the ECOS and the engine automatically shuts down. Wireless ECOS are electronic fobs that automatically cut off the engine when they detect they are submerged in water. These devices are critical pieces of safety equipment if the operator is ejected from the boat.

Failure to use an ECOS can have tragic consequences. On June 1, 2017, Anderson County Sheriff’s Deputy Devin Hodges was conducting on-water training exercises on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina. During the training exercise, all three occupants of a 19-foot patrol boat were ejected. The boat was equipped with an ECOS device, but the device was not in use.

After the three occupants were ejected, the unmanned vessel began circling while unmanned, an incredibly dangerous situation known in boating as the “circle of death.” The vessel and its propeller eventually struck Deputy Hodges, fatally injuring him. This tragic incident could have been avoided if the operator had attached the ECOS halyard to his person. If he had done so, the boat’s engine would have shut off when the operator was ejected. In this instance, the operator was charged with Reckless Homicide.

Robert Regan manning his boat

ECOS have been installed by the manufacturer on nearly every vessel that has been produced for several decades. In fact, Congress passed a law that as of December 2019 all manufacturers are required to equip vessels they produce with an ECOS. Almost no boats will need to have their vessels retrofitted with ECOS capability to comply with this law. Operators are simply required to start using safety devices already in place.

The language of the new law can be found under Section 8316 of the Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act, which passed Congress in early 2020. In particular, the statute requires individuals to use an engine cut-off switch while operating any vessel less than 26 feet in length with an engine capable of 115 pounds of static thrust (which is roughly equivalent to 3 horsepower) anytime the vessel is operated above displacement speed (idle).

One exception to the rule is if the main helm of the vessel is contained within an enclosed cabin that would prevent an operator from falling overboard. Use of the ECOS is not required under any circumstances while docking, trolling, or operating in no-wake zones. The law will be enforced by the Coast Guard in federally navigable waterways. Violators face civil penalties up to $100 for the first offense.

If you or a loved one have been injured in a boating accident through no fault of your own, you may be entitled to compensation. Call Allen & allen today for a free consultation at 866-388-1307.