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Overweight Americans sink old boat-safety rule

Cindy Skrzycki,  Sep 23, 2008

The growth of America's waistline has hit the waterways. Since it's not polite to throw a man overboard, the U.S. Coast Guard is revising a standard that commercial boat owners use to determine how many passengers they can safely board and still meet weight limits.

The agency, trying to protect more than 6,000 sightseeing, water taxis and ferries from being overloaded, proposes increasing the assumed weight of adult passengers to 185 pounds, from the 1960s-era standard of 160 pounds. The action was spurred by boats sinking in Baltimore and New York in 2004 and 2005 that killed 25 persons.

``This regulation has the potential for being the most challenging rule for our industry in a long time,'' said John Groundwater, executive director of the Passenger Vessel Association in Alexandria, Virginia. The trade group supports the weight increase if owners are given credit for a strong safety record and practices such as not filling their boats to capacity.

The rulemaking is a sign of how the added poundage of passengers affects the revenue of weight-sensitive industries. Southwest Airlines Co. requires passengers to buy a second ticket if they can't fit into a seat without encroaching on another passenger. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that passengers on planes with nine or fewer seats submit their weight to the carrier.

``They can only carry what they can carry,'' said William Peters, a Coast Guard naval architect, of the affected vessels. ``If you have heavy people, you have to assume heavy people in your calculations. Weight is weight is weight.''

Dramatic Weight Increase

For the current rulemaking, the agency factored in the dramatic increase in the weight of Americans in the last 40 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 1960 and 2002, adults gained more than 24 pounds on average. Teenage boys put on 15 pounds and now average 141 pounds and teenage girls put on 12, rising to 130 on average.

In 2003, the FAA added 10 pounds to airlines' weight and balance calculations. The agency said carriers should assume adults weigh an average of 190 pounds in summer and 195 in winter.

In the case of the water taxi accident in Baltimore, investigation records showed the average weight of the passengers was 168.4 pounds, not the 140 pounds that was used as the criteria for certifying the boat's stability.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended updating the weight calculation as a result of the accident. The industry said the weather was so extreme that the boat would have sunk anyway.

Mind-Bending Math

The Aug. 20 rulemaking announcement estimates that the changes will cost the passenger vessel industry $10 million initially and then $2.5 million a year. The proposal also would require a boat's stability be checked annually and that a stability test, which involves some mind-bending mathematical calculations, be done every 10 years.

Owners would have 60 days to readjust their loads if the Coast Guard changes the weight standard again. The agency will take comments on the proposal until Nov. 18. There is no estimated date for issuing a final rule.

The passenger vessel trade group thinks the cost estimates are too low.

``We are concerned that this underestimates the impact on the industry,'' said Groundwater, citing the cost of the additional stability testing.

Commercial operators like Ride the Ducks LLC, a subsidiary of Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. in Norcross, Georgia, will feel the impact. The boats, built on the model of U.S. Army World War II DUKW, carry some 1 million passengers annually.

Fewer Passengers

Now they probably will have to carry fewer passengers on amphibious land and water rides through cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Bob Salmon, vice president of sales and marketing, said vehicles that normally board 36 or 37 people may have trim back to 32 to 34.

``We see our customers boarding, so we can make decisions whether we fill it up,'' he said.

Other commercial boat operators say they won't have to tighten their belts.

Robert Lumpp, captain of the Arkansas Queen in North Little Rock, Arkansas, said his cruise boat is licensed to carry 338 passengers and a crew of 20. He seats 250 for dinner cruises and 300 for a stand-up cocktail party on the Arkansas River, he said.

It's likely that when the rule becomes final, some operators will have to shed passengers since people make up the bulk of a boat's weight.

Owners also have to include in stability calculations how much weight their boats put on as they age. Additional coats of paint, replacing small refrigerators with bigger ones, and squirreling away old equipment in cubbyholes on vessels that may be up to 50 years old can expand this particular bottom line.

Said Peters of the Coast Guard: ``It only makes sense to factor in these higher weights to keep the safety margin we have had for decades.''

Overweight Americans sink old boat-safety rule

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