Is the Right to Screw-up in the Bill of Rights?

Earlier in my life, I did a lot of business flying in small planes. The joke about flying being hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror can be alarmingly close to the truth. I lost a good friend and fellow pilot last week to an aircraft accident. He managed to save all his passengers with truly superior airmanship. His two engines quit one following the other shortly after takeoff. He touched down initially on a pond in a subdivision, because that was the best shot he had – maneuvering to miss a house with a family inside in the process. His son and co-pilot said he never uttered another word after the engines began deserting him. He just used his skills and knowledge in his few remaining moments to make a difficult best of a really bad situation. I would like to think I would have done as well, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

Pilots are granted by law a tremendous latitude in a flying emergency to try and save their aircraft and all aboard. That used to be the case on the waters, too. I fear that we may be letting that slip away.

I fully support any and all modifications to my boating (or flying) rights made necessary by considerations of Homeland Security. I congratulate the US Coast Guard and other regulatory agencies for making sure that my boats are well built and functional under even conditions of high stress. Any device that makes me, my passengers or my country safer in those conditions is likely to be on my purchase list, even if it is not mandated.

I have an acute problem with devices that rob me or any other captain of intelligent discretion, whether the craft floats or flies. I have no problem with required, reasonably priced, safety gear that affords me the tools to make my journeys safer. I do have a problem with devices that narrow my discretion during emergencies.

A case in point, the devices that kill small boat engines if the helmsman falls overboard certainly make sense in rough seas. The latest gadgets tested by ABYC that cut the engines when anybody aboard falls overboard rob the captain of discretion in handling the emergency. I can easily imagine conditions where the entire crew and the boat are placed in danger by the captain’s loss of control. I suspect that anyone else that has navigated (or can imagine navigation of ) a narrow tidal seaway can do this also. I would feel a lot more comfortable with a horn blast that notifies the captain, if the situation needs to be addressed. A captain in control has a good chance of rescuing the lost crew member. One who is frantically trying to override cutoff devices before he is on the rocks may not.

Years ago, Piper Aircraft Company engineers put a device on one line of their planes that automatically lowered the landing gear in case the pilot forgot. It sensed the retarding of the throttle below a certain point as indication of an imminent landing. After several accidents involving aircraft reducing throttle for a number of perfectly good, non-landing reasons, the FAA made Piper issue an Aircraft Directive (mandatory) disconnecting these things.

Our government and its practitioners certainly must walk a fine line between the defense of life and the equally important defense of liberty in the form of educated freedom of choice. A lot of lives have gone into defense of our liberty. I ask that all those who have occasion to influence mandations to our industry carefully weigh the consequences of their actions. Boating is a very safe sport evidenced by hard statistics. Most of us are aware that we accept some additional risk when we leave our easy chairs for the waters. We do this by choice. I say yes to the boating choice, and I say no to the bungee jumping choice – that’s part of my exercise of liberty.

A lot of safety measures, education and gadgetry is coming on the boating scene. That’s great! It becomes less so if its use is mandatory. As dealers, manufacturers, equipment suppliers and other professional members of the boating fraternity, we have a responsibility to represent our customers in this evolution. Let’s not muff it.

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About John Underwood

John Underwood currently serves on the National Boating Safety Advisory Council for the US Coast Guard. He is past chairman of the Marine Retailers Association of America. He owned Lockwood Marine for 20 years. For more info, click Contributors on the main menu.

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