Weighing boater safety

October 13, 2005

There are obvious differences between the tour boat that accidentally capsized on Lake George this month and the Baltimore Inner Harbor water taxi that overturned in March of last year. The two boats are physically quite different and the circumstances (a calm day in New York; a gusty afternoon in Baltimore) varied, too. But there's at least one common element that may have contributed greatly to the cause of both of these tragedies: Each vessel carried more passengers than it should have been allowed to handle.

The gravity of the issue was made clear by documents released last week by the National Transportation Safety Board. The Lady D, the Inner Harbor pontoon boat that overturned, was 700 pounds overweight, NTSB investigators determined. That's because the 25 passengers on board weighed an average of 168 pounds - but the calculation that determined the vessel's maximum capacity was based on the current U.S. Coast Guard standard of an average passenger weight of 140 pounds.

In Lake George, the Ethan Allen was certified to carry up to 50 passengers (and was carrying 48 people, including its captain at the time of the accident). But it could have supported no more than 40 passengers if the higher weight standard of 174 pounds per passenger that the NTSB recommended in December 2004 had been adopted. The difference might have been crucial. Investigators have already suggested the boat was too heavily laden.

Unfortunately, the Coast Guard's passenger weight formula for commercial vessels hasn't been revised in 45 years, yet research shows Americans, on average, have gotten much heavier over that time. This fact has considerable implications for the transportation industry. It's caused airlines to recalculate their fuel needs, for instance, because heavier jets require more fuel to fly.

While it's not yet certain whether extra weight was the primary cause of either the Inner Harbor accident that killed five or the Lake George disaster where 20 people drowned, it's clear that underestimating passenger weight poses a safety problem.

Inner Harbor taxis no longer take on as many passengers as they did before the Lady D accident, and New York Gov. George E. Pataki recently ordered local tour boat operators to reduce their passenger loads, too. The Coast Guard is examining the issue of passenger capacity, but 10 months is too long to ponder such a relatively simple safety issue.

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