Collisions prompt Coast Guard to restrict cell phone use by crews

After two serious collisions involving its own boats, the U.S. Coast Guard has prohibited its crews from using cell phones and other electronic devices while operating a vessel.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is urging the Coast Guard to issue a safety advisory to the entire industry about the hazards of using mobile devices in the wheelhouse.

The Coast Guard’s new internal policy follows a pair of accidents on the evenings of holiday boat parades in December 2009, one resulting in the death of an 8-year-old boy on a recreational vessel.

The first collision was on Dec. 5 in Charleston Harbor, S.C., when a 25-foot response boat broadsided a 55-foot power catamaran tour boat, injuring three passengers. The fatality occurred on Dec. 20 in San Diego Bay when a 33-foot special purpose craft-law enforcement, or SPC-LE, rammed the stern of a 24-foot Sea Ray.

While no official causes of those collisions have been determined yet, investigators uncovered potentially dangerous cell-phone use by Coast Guard crewmembers in both incidents, the NTSB said. In August, the board wrote a letter urging the Coast Guard to develop internal policies on mobile-phone conversations and texting aboard vessels and to issue a safety advisory to the commercial industry on the dangers.

“The risk associated with distractions from using wireless devices while operating a motor vehicle are well known,†the NTSB said in a statement, “and the Safety Board believes that the boating public and commercial marine industry should be reminded that similar risks may exist on the water.â€

After the NTSB issued its recommendations, the Coast Guard disclosed that it had established new rules for its own crews a month earlier. It is reviewing the idea of sending out an advisory to industry.

Capt. Sam Teel, a professor of marine transportation at Maine Maritime Academy, said safety instructors discuss the potential dangers of cell-phone use with cadets during training on the prevention of distractions in the wheelhouse. Various electronic technologies on the bridge have the potential to reduce what Teel calls the “situational-awareness bubble†— the size of the perimeter around a vessel to which the mariner is able to pay close attention.

“Clearly, a cell phone would be something that would shrink the size of your situational-awareness bubble … and you won’t be as aware of what’s going on out there,†Teel said.

Distracting cell-phone conversations had been identified as a cause of at least one major commercial-vessel casualty. A harbor pilot aboard the tanker Sun Sapphire in the Savannah River in 2000 was making personal phone calls when the vessel struck a liquefied natural gas facility and then ran aground, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak. The accident caused at least $20 million in damage.

The Coast Guard’s new policy limits the use of electronic devices not only by the vessel operator, but also by rest of the crew, who should be standing watch and looking out.

“While cell phones and texting devices have become ubiquitous in everyday life, the internal Coast Guard policy issued in July prohibits their use on Coast Guard boats without the permission of the coxswain,†Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Chris O’Neil said. “The policy also strictly prohibits the use of these devices by the coxswain, or the operator, of a Coast Guard boat.â€

The NTSB and the Coast Guard emphasized that investigators were still probing the combination of factors that led to the accidents in Charleston and San Diego.

“The NTSB has not yet determined the probable causes … but the board has confirmed that cellular telephones and similar electronic devices were being used while the Coast Guard crewmembers were engaged in vessel operations,†the board said.

Mariners don’t have total control of who phones them and when. Teel suggested that cell-phone use should be kept to an absolute minimum while vessels approach a pilot station, operate in a harbor or are in locations of reduced visibility.

“It makes sense that a good captain would have this discussion about what is appropriate and say, ‘I don’t want to come up in the wheelhouse and find you talking on the cell phone just for the joy of talking on the cell phone. I don’t want to see you with an iPod in your ear either,’†Teel said.

It may not be practical for mariners to keep their mobile devices turned off while underway. Often their employers ashore want to use cell phones to communicate instructions, and sometimes the devices are used to report emergencies.

“Cell phones and texting devices may be useful communication tools if boats lose a marine radio signal or as alternate means of communication to a marine radio,†the Coast Guard said in a statement.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff