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Mar 25, 2021

Many small powerboat operators leave the lanyard to the engine cutoff switch dangling uselessly unattached to the skipper. A new law, effective April 1, 2021, should go a long way to remedying that safety hazard.

Engine cutoff device wear requirements for recreational boat operators are part of the January 1, 2021, passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, which included a U.S. Coast Guard Re authorization. These devices, commonly referred to as engine cutoff switches (ECOS) are designed to prevent a boat-strike injury if an operator is accidentally ejected overboard while underway.

Engine cutoff devices can be located at the helm of the boat or on the tiller or body of an outboard engine, and typically connect a boat’s operator to the cutoff switch with a lanyard. Some new ECOS devices eliminate the lanyard and rely on wireless proximity devices to shut down an engine if the operator goes overboard. Use of these wireless devices, an electronic "fob" worn by the operator that turn off the engine when submerged in water, are also acceptable under the new rule.

Section 8316 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 requires a vessel operator to use ECOS on certain vessels less than 26 feet when traveling on plane or above displacement speed.

Exceptions to the ECOS requirement include if the main helm of the vessel is in an enclosed cabin or the vessel is not operating on plane or at displacement speed. Low-speed activities such as trolling or docking do not require use of an ECOS. The vessel operator is also exempt if the boat's motor produces less than 115 pounds of static thrust — or about the size of a 3-hp engine.

The new rule applies to all navigable waterways. Current federal law preempts states from enacting or enforcing a law on a subject that is different from a federal law on the same subject. States also cannot enforce federal law.