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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Published: Friday, 7/28/2006

Update tour boat laws

A MONUMENT is fine, but the best way to remember the 20 senior citizens who died in the capsize of an overloaded tour boat in upstate New York is to pass tough federal laws to help ensure that such tragic accidents don't reoccur.

Six of the people who died Oct. 2 in the sinking of the Ethan Allen, a 40-foot sightseeing vessel, were members of the Bedford Township Senior Center just across the state line from Toledo in Michigan, so we feel their loss keenly.

A waterfront monument to the victims is planned by the village of Lake George, N.Y., but, while such a commemoration is certainly appropriate, substantive official action is needed to prevent a repeat.

The best outcome, we believe, would be the updating of federal law to modernize regulations on commercial tour vessels in regard to construction, stability, passenger capacity, and other safety matters that contributed to the accident. Once these rules are updated, the Coast Guard or some other federal agency must be given sufficient resources for enforcement, including regular inspections.

And, to avoid overlapping jurisdictions and confusion over responsibility, all tour vessels should be regulated by federal law rather than the individual states.

We cannot help but wonder how many other aging tour boats similar to the Ethan Allen are in operation on U.S. lakes and rivers that amount to accidents waiting to happen - regardless of the age of the passengers.

Given the popularity of organized tours for senior citizens in this country, the elderly may be especially vulnerable because as an age group, older folks may be least able to save themselves in such a life or death situation.

It is clear from the report by the National Transportation Safety Board that the Ethan Allen slipped through myriad regulatory cracks due to outdated or inadequate state and federal laws.

The most glaring of these is the need for a realistic formula for safe passenger capacity. Current regulations, which date to the 1940s, assume that passengers weigh 140 pounds each, which gave the Ethan Allen a certified capacity of 50. But the 48 people involved in the Oct. 2 accident weighed an average of just under 178 pounds. The NTSB said the vessel was stable enough for only 14.

The boat, built in 1966, had been given a heavy wooden canopy in 1989, but the NTSB found that it had not been tested to determine whether it was top-heavy. New York, as well as Michigan and other states, have only an "honor system" that asks but does not require vessel operators to report such changes. Regular inspections should be mandated.

No one likes additional government regulation, but it is clear from the NTSB report that a more unified approach to safety, coupled with close enforcement, could have prevented the capsize of the Ethan Allen and the loss of so many lives.



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