Texas boating just got a whole lot safer.
In May, the 86th Texas Legislature approved a law mandating drivers to employ a functional cut-off switch whenever a boat is moving at more than headway speed.
The law, signed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in early June and effective Sept. 1, applies to drivers of boats 26 feet or less in length that are equipped with emergency engine cut-off switch technology. Headway speed is a slow idle — just fast enough to maintain steerage on course.
Better known as a “kill switch,” the cut-off 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 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.
What’s the use?
The idea behind wearing a kill switch is simple. If the driver is thrown from the boat, the lanyard goes with him or her. 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, eliminating the possibility of being hit by a runaway boat or struck by a spinning engine propeller.
Just the opposite happens when a kill switch is not in use. Should the driver and passengers get thrown overboard for some reason, the engine running and the propeller continues to turn as a now driverless boat continues .
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 said.
Only takes a second
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.
There are some good examples of kill switch negligence floating around on YouTube. One of the best was published in April by Michael Broussard.
The video shows two anglers motoring on the lake in a bass boat at a high rate of speed when something causes the boat to hook hard to the port side. The sudden shift catapults both fishermen over the starboard gunwale and into the water. Both anglers were wearing their lifejackets, but the driver wasn’t wearing a functional kill switch.
The video captures the now driverless boat as it turns circles and passes alarmingly close to the fishermen as they float helplessly on the surface. Luckily, another boat came along and picked up the fishermen before the accident turned tragic. The video shows the anglers as they commandeer the runaway boat and shut down the throttle.
Broussard posted the footage along with a convincing caption: “My dad and I were fishing in Toledo Bend in 2018 when this occurred,” he wrote. “I bypassed donning my usual safety precautions because I was distracted and it almost cost us our lives. Despite having been on the water my whole life, I didn’t truly know how unforgiving the water could be and how quickly things can go wrong. Always wear your kill switch, lifejacket and other PPE (personal protective equipment), and know your equipment! Big thanks to the guys who picked us up that day, they probably saved our lives.”
Not every story has such a happy ending.
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 toward 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 not know if the man died from drowning or as the result of 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 to 2012. That’s 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 it 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, and again when Abbott signed it into law.
Making boating safer
This is one law Texas’ boating community should fully embrace. Boat safety advocates believe it significantly reduces the number of boating-related injuries and fatalities witnessed each year on Texas lakes, bays and rivers.
Cody Jones, TPWD Assistant Commander for Marine Enforcement, said it is impossible to know how many injuries or fatalities the 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 warden said the regulation has applied to personal watercraft operators across the state since 1989. The adoption of Kali’s Law makes Texas the seventh state to adopt some sort of kill switch law for power boats.
Those who do not comply with the new law face a fine up to $200. However, Jones said state wardens won’t begin enforcing it right away.
“Anytime a new law comes about we spend the first year in the education mode before we take any enforcement action on somebody,” he said.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, email@example.com.