Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cell Phones

Photo by WhisperToMe

It was my first time as a full-time captain of a ship, and we were only a couple of hours into the voyage. As I came on to the bridge from below, I saw the second mate, standing his first watch on board, with the wheel in one hand and his cell phone in the other. He seemed surprised later when I told him to stay off his phone while on the conn; apparently it was an accepted practice on previous vessels he’d worked on. As time went on, I saw more and more cell use by watch standers, including myself. On one vessel I captained, conducting the business the company expected me to only while someone else was on watch would have been virtually impossible. I suspect my experience is typical.

In the last few years, several incidents have led the US Coast Guard and others to believe that maybe mariners have become a bit too comfortable talking on a cell phone or texting while operating a vessel:
  • In December 2009, a Coast Guard vessel collided with a tour boat near Charleston, South Carolina, injuring several people.
  • Later that month, a Coast Guard patrol boat collided with a recreational vessel in San Diego Bay, killing an 8-year-boy.
  • In July 2010, the tug Caribbean Sea, pushing a 250-ft barge, collided with a duck tour boat on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, killing two of the tour boat’s passengers.

In each case, the operator on the vessel found responsible for the collision was using a cell phone.

A year after the Coast Guard incidents, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended the agency adopt rules governing the use of cell phones and other electronic devices, and also that it urge civilian shipping companies “develop and implement effective operational policies outlining when the use of cellular telephones and other devices is appropriate or prohibited.” The Coast Guard also agreed to work with recreational boating organizations to develop guidelines for boaters.

It will be an uphill battle. Clear evidence shows that cell use distracts automobile drivers and slows reaction time. In response to a multi-vehicle accident in Missouri – including 2 school buses – in which texting was found to be a factor, the NTSB recommended that states “ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers.” But as someone who lives in a state where such a ban is already in place, I can tell you that I still see drivers talking or texting nearly every time I go out on the road.

Will restricting cell use on the bridge reduce the likelihood of collisions like those mentioned above? Maybe. As has been noted elsewhere, a mariner who has no problem riding six feet off your rear bumper at 70mph on the interstate may start getting nervous when another vessel going 20 knots gets within 12 miles in open water. On the other hand, autopilots, alarms, and neat electronics that calculate CPAs (closest point of approach) for us can lead to a false sense of security.

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  1. I just attended a meeting with NTSB in regards to this and in theory, I buy what they are preaching but in reflection on the whole matter, I have a few issues with the proposed regulation of this.
    1- how is being on a cell phone any greater distraction from navigational duties than talking with another vessel or VTS or other agencies on a VHF?
    2- Is it any more distracting than having multiple individuals on a bridge chatting away?
    3- or taking time to fill out the log book?

    I think the real problem is under manning a bridge watch.

    Capt. Voss

  2. Capt. Voss: a few thougts:

    I would add: 4) calling the Coast Guard! Several times recently I've heard VTS or another Coast Guard unit encourage a mariner calling on the VHF (to report a medical problem, a deadhead, or mechanical issue) to call them on the CG's "land line." The CG is obviously using cell phones as a routine means of dealing with non-emergency situations at sea.

    The company that owns the Caribbean Sea had a policy against cell phone use in the wheelhouse, but these policies only work if they're enforced. I also wonder if it applied to the company office: is it against the rules to call a vessel at a time it's scheduled to be under way? My guess is, this was just a CYA policy in the first place.

    Finally, a 2010 study in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that 44% of people believe that using a non-hands free cell phone while driving increases the chance of getting in an accident, but continue to use their phones anyway. The number jumps to 77% when it comes to texting. In other words, people are going to do it any way, even when they know they shouldn't.

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