Boat running on lake

The 86th Legislature recently passed a bill that would mandate the use of engine cut-off switches on boats 26 feet or less in length whenever underway, if the vessel is equipped with one from the manufacturer. The legislation is awaiting the signature of Governor Greg Abbott. Unless vetoed, the law will take effect Sept 1.

Texas boating is one signature away from becoming a whole lot safer.

Last month, the 86th Texas Legislature voted to adopt a law that many boating safety advocates believe could significantly reduce the number of boating-related injuries and fatalities witnessed each year on Texas lakes, bays and rivers.

Governor Greg Abbott has until mid-June to sign the legislation, which will mandate that the driver of a motor boat that is 26 feet or less in length and equipped with an emergency engine cut-off switch to make sure the cut-off switch is functional and attached whenever the boat is moving at more than headway speed.

Better known as a “kill switch,” the device is typically a cord or lanyard with a special clip at one end. The clip attaches to a button or switch that enables the boat’s engine to run. The opposite end secures to the boat driver’s lifejacket, belt loop or around the wrist.

The law also contains language allowing for the use of functional wireless attachments, which activate the engine kill switch electronically should the boat operator fall overboard. AutoTether or FELL Marine Man OverBoard are among the most popular wireless kill switch models.

The idea behind wearing a kill switch is simple. It eliminates the possibility of being hit by a runaway boat or struck by a spinning engine propeller.

Should the boat driver be thrown from the helm for some reason, the lanyard goes with them. This causes the clip to disengage from the switch and automatically disables the boat’s engine.

The prop stops turning when the engine dies. This brings the boat to a halt, so hopefully the ejected boaters can re-enter the vessel.

Just the opposite happens when a kill switch is not in use. Should the driver and passengers get thrown overboard as a boat speeds across the water, the engine keeps right on running and the propeller continues to turn as a now driverless boat continues its course.

With no one onboard to control steerage, most vessels usually wind up turning circles under the torque of the spinning propeller. The calamity is sometimes called the “circle of death,” because ejected boaters are at high risk of being run over by the out-of-control boat, struck by the sharp blades of a spinning propeller, or both.

The dire consequences of boat drivers not wearing their engine kill switch are illustrated in boating accident reports all too often.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2017 Recreational Boating Statistics report, there were 172 accidents nationwide that year in which at least one person was struck by a propeller. Those accidents resulted in 31 deaths and 162 injuries, the report says.

Such accidents can happen in an instant. All it takes is a hidden stump, steering failure or rogue boat wake or wave to turn a good day into a really bad one.

My good friend Kerry Karlix of McKinney was bass fishing on Lake Whitney in the early 2000s when a spring storm forced him off the water. As he and his fishing partner motored towards shore, they came across a boat spinning in circles near the lake’s dam. The boat’s only occupant was a black lab.

“There wasn’t anybody at the steering wheel and we didn’t see anyone in the water,” Karlix recalled. “The boat was just going round and round and the dog was looking at us over the side. We thought about trying to stop the boat, but the water was just too rough. It was a pretty eerie feeling.”

Karlix said authorities were immediately called to the scene. He learned that a man’s body was recovered in the area a few days later. Karlix said he did know if the man died from drowning or as the result being struck by the propeller. It was apparent that the boat’s kill switch wasn’t in use when he went overboard.

One of the most sobering of Texas boating accidents dates back to 2012, when a San Antonio teenager was thrown from a boat and killed by a propeller while on a fishing trip near Aransas Pass on the Texas Coast.

Her name was Kali Gorzell. She was only 16.

Gorzell’s family has been working tirelessly ever since to convince Texas politicians to create a law to mandate kill switch usage for powerboat operators.

The efforts led to the drafting of “Kali’s Law” a couple of years ago, but it failed to make through the 85th Texas Legislature in 2017.

The girl’s family didn’t give up after the failed attempt. They were present in Austin on May 14 when the legislation — House Bill 337 by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio — passed in a final Senate vote. The bill was later sent to the Governor’s office, hopefully for final approval sometime this month.

Too much regulation is never a good thing thing, but this is one law Texas’ boating community should fully embrace.

Cody Jones, TPWD Assistant Commander for Marine Enforcement, says it is impossible to know for sure how many injuries or fatalities a mandatory kill switch law might prevent in Texas, because every situation is different. But he believes the number could be significant.

“Based on the fact that a large portion of our fatalities occur from people falling overboard or being thrown from a vessel there is a high probability of people being saved by a law of this nature,” Jones said.

The game warden pointed to U.S. Coast Guard estimates from 2009 as evidence to support the belief. The USCG calculation indicated that mandatory wear of an engine cut-off switch could reduce deaths by roughly 89 percent and injuries by about 77 percent.

“If the 2009 USCG proposed rule calculation is correct last year’s (2018) total fatalities of 29 (in Texas) could have possibly been reduced by 26 (89 percent) resulting in only three fatalities,” he said.

If the bill makes it through Abbott’s office without veto, Kali’s Law will become effective Sept. 1, making Texas one of seven states with a mandatory kill switch law for powerboats.