116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Boaters hope they never see a riderless boat circling in the water.
It's called the 'circle of death,” and it often means the driver fell overboard, leaving the motor running, and couldn't escape the circling vessel.
'They could be in the middle of this, and they can't get away, and the propeller cuts them and causes their death,” said Susan Stocker, Iowa Department of Natural Resources boating law administrator and education coordinator.
A new federal law that goes into effect Thursday requires boat operators to use an engine cutoff switch, if their boat has one, on federal waterways, which include the Coralville Lake, Saylorville Lake, Lake Rathbun and Lake Red Rock, as well as the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Iowa law already requires people on personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis, to use kill switches, and Stocker said she expects Iowa will soon require boaters also to use these devices.
'I feel it is a safety measure we can all get behind,” she said.
Stocker hasn't seen the circle of death herself, but there are plenty of videos on YouTube.
The spiral can be started if a boat operator releases the steering wheel or column while the boat still is powered. The rotating propeller blades create torque, causing the motor to turn sharply in the direction of the blades. The boat then starts turning the opposite direction, which can throw the driver or other passengers.
'It's a challenge because even if the operator is safe, there's hardly anything you can do to get the boat to stop until it runs out of gas,” Stocker said.
An engine cutoff switch is connected to the boat driver through a coiled cord clipped to the life jacket, wrist or belt, Stocker said. There also are electronic kill switches that use transponders instead of a cord. But both will stop the engine if the driver is thrown from the boat or falls down suddenly within the boat.
Engine cutoff switch links have been Coast Guard-required equipment on powerboats since late 2019, and most boats built since 2013 have them.
'If an engine cutoff switch was not manufactured with the boat, the customer's not required to have one installed,” Stocker said.
Seven states - Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey and Texas - already have this law for state water bodies.
Stocker thinks it's likely too late this year for the Iowa Legislature to pass a law requiring engine cutoff switches to be used on state waters, but she expects future legislation.
'Certainly, in the future, we'd look to have this on all waters,” she said.
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