Dinner Key Tragedy: Advocates Say Florida Could Save Lives With One Simple Safety Law

In last month's Dinner Key boating tragedy, when a 32' Contender powerboat slammed into the side of a 36' Carrera the night of the Fourth of July, ultimately killing four and leaving one in a coma, all five occupants of the Contender were either thrown overboard or knocked unconscious after the impact. With no one left to man the wheel, the Contender collided with another boat, a Boston Whaler carrying nine, and then continued in circles in a pitch black Biscayne Bay, endangering even more lives.

A marine tow vessel finally brought the boat under control when a crew member leaped aboard and took the wheel. But the heroic maneuvering likely wouldn't have been necessary if the Contender's engine had been automatically shut off by a simple device called an emergency safety lanyard, or kill switch. Florida, despite leading the nation in boating deaths, doesn't require boaters to use the safety measure.

See also: DJ Laz and the Dinner Key Boating Disaster: Too Many Watery Deaths

The lanyard is a cord that the boat operator clips to his wrist, life jacket or clothing; if it gets pulled, the engine is automatically shut off.

The majority of recreational boats now come equipped with the lanyards, as did the Contender, but only five states, according to a 2011 Coast Guard, have any kind of laws actually mandating operators use them: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois, and Nevada. (Nearly all states do have laws mandating use of the lanyards in PWCs, or jet skis.)

Florida, the most popular state for boating and also the deadliest, with 62 fatalities last year, is conspicuously absent from the list. Boating safety advocates say the powerful boating industry has done its part to make sure the state and others don't enact the regulation.

"They want no barriers to boating," Gary Polson, who runs the site propellersafety.com, told Riptide. "They don't want mandatory anything."

Polson estimates only 25 percent of recreational boaters -- at most -- actually use the kill switches, partly because the cords can feel awkward or cumbersome. But better technology, like wireless sensors that detect when a boat driver is too far away, does exist, he says, although so far manufacturers have resisted implementing them.

"They cost more," he says. "To date nobody's really building boats in any kind of quantities that are putting that in them."

Polson says the industry, represented by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), has fought tighter safety regulations for everything from life jackets to propeller guards going back decades. "They have a legislative group," Polson says. "Whatever's being proposed they tend to rally the troops around opposing it."

Also because of the group's influence, Polson says, language on boats and in manuals pertaining to the kill switches is frequently scant or vague, like a single line in one 2014 boat's operator checklist that simply advises the user to check that "Lanyard stop switch is operational and securely fastened."

"They just say 'wear the switch' and that's kind of it," Polson said of the warnings. "I think most experienced boaters have the understanding that, 'This kill switch is going to stop the boat if I fall out'. But many of them don't understand that 'If I don't wear it, the boat can circle."

Ellen Hopkins, of the NMMA, defended the group's record. "We've never been against the lanyards," she said. "And we do support safety and we support state laws."

Asked if the industry group would support a hypothetical new mandatory boating kill switch requirement in Florida, Hopkins offered a qualified "yes."

"If boaters wanted that," she said, "then yeah, we would support that."

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Trevor Bach