TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A law now in effect across Texas requires boaters to an emergency engine cutoff switch, known as a “kill switch,” if their boat is under 26 feet in length and equipped with the mechanism.
Boat drivers are required to use the cutoff if they’re going faster than headway speed — basically idle speed.
The change comes seven years after a San Antonio 16-year-old, Kali Gorzell, was killed during a fishing trip on the Texas coast when she was thrown from the boat and hit by the propeller. Called “Kali’s Law,” the regulation went into effect Sept. 1.
“Whenever we do a safety inspection, that’s one of the things that we’re going to be looking at for any boats that are less than 26 feet,” said Sgt. Greg Lawson with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office’s Lake Patrol.
Lawson demonstrated the mechanism for KXAN Friday at Lake Travis. The engine cutoff switch attaches to a circuit near the boat’s ignition and then clips to the driver’s life jacket or body. If the driver walks away from the ignition or is thrown overboard, the switch pulls away and immediately cuts off the engines.
“If you don’t have a kill switch and you fall overboard for some reason — and it does happen — your boat’s going to just keep going,” Lawson said. “You’re going to be in the water and hopefully the boat won’t be in a turn and come back at you.”
Lawson remembered a rescue he was involved in back in the 1990s. A woman had bypassed the kill switch on her jet ski, and when she fell off, her life jacket got snagged. She spent a couple hours being dragged around the lake until Lawson and others found her and pulled her to safety.
Someone thrown from a larger boat is at risk of the boat or propeller hitting them.
According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, 38 people died in Texas boating accidents last year, and another 123 people were hurt.
It’s hard to know for sure, but a spokesperson for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, using USCG estimates for how much kill switches reduce harm, said “it would be reasonable to believe that 34 of the fatalities and 95 of the injuries may not have occurred had an engine cutoff switch been employed during operation of the vessel.”
While the Texas law doesn’t require old boats to be retrofitted with kill switches, new boats under 26 feet are required to have them nationwide, thanks to a requirement Congress included in the latest USCG budget authorization bill passed in December 2018.
At South Austin Marine Lakeside, a boat shop a few minutes from Lake Travis, all the boats they sell, except for some of the larger ones, have cutoff switches.
Brian Gardner, a salesman there, said customers have been calling to ask about the new law.
“They’re just asking, you know, are they going to enforce it, which we don’t know that,” Gardner said. “What are the consequences?”
Lawson said they will be enforcing it, starting during routine safety checks they conduct. “Initially we’re going to be using warnings just to get compliance because a lot of people aren’t going to know about this,” he said.
But they will also be writing tickets. The law allows for a $200 fine for not wearing a kill switch.