Safety Board: Baltimore Water Taxi in Accident Was Overloaded

March 10, 2006

Americans’ expanding waistlines were a factor in the capsizing of a Baltimore water taxi that killed five people in 2004, a trend that has led to other deadly transportation accidents, the government said.

The National Transportation Safety Board said that the water taxi tipped over because excessive passenger weight made the boat too unstable to withstand a sudden gust of wind.

The NTSB said the Coast Guard underestimated the “tippiness” of the 36-foot Lady D pontoon boat because it used the results of a stability test designed for a different type of vessel.

The Coast Guard also assumed the average weight per passenger was 140 pounds, a standard that hasn’t changed since 1942, the safety board said.

“It’s the issue of what this thing can carry,” said NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker.

The average weight among the Lady D’s 25 passengers when the accident happened was 168 pounds, making it 700 pounds overweight, investigators said.

As a result of the accident, the Coast Guard has implemented a more detailed stability test for pontoon boats like the Lady D.

In October, the Coast Guard contracted for a one-year study to assess what would happen if the assumptions about people’s average weight were changed.

The NTSB said it was concerned the Coast Guard wasn’t moving fast enough.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela McArdle said the law requires certain steps before regulations are changed. “We are moving forward,” McArdle said.

Too much passenger weight was an issue in several other deadly accidents: the 2003 crash of a small plane in Charlotte, N.C., in which 21 people were killed on takeoff; and the sinking of the Ethan Allen tour boat on Lake George in New York last fall, which killed 20 elderly people.

In both cases, regulators relied on weight estimates that dated back to a time when Americans were slimmer.

Several months after the Charlotte crash, the Federal Aviation Administration raised its estimates of how much passengers and their luggage weigh.

And shortly after the 38-foot Ethan Allen capsized, New York Gov. George Pataki quickly changed the weight standard to 174 pounds for tour boats on state-regulated waterways.

Like thousands of vessels on inland rivers and lakes, the tour boat was operating under state regulation. Some mirror the Coast Guard’s 140-pound federal standard, as New York’s did before Pataki changed it.

The safety board directed its staff to alert organizations, such as the National Association of State Boating License Administrators, to the problem of overestimating the number of passengers that can safely board a boat because of standards based on a population of thinner people.

NTSB Member Ellen Engleman Conners said she was concerned there were other modes of transportation where assumptions about the weight of the average passenger factors into safety regulations.

On March 6, 2004, the Lady D had just left Fort McHenry with 25 people on board when severe weather moved into the region.

The vessel, run by Seaport Taxi, was one of several small water taxis on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor when it was struck by wind nearing 50 mph. Passengers clung to its overturned hull in frigid water as they awaited rescue.

The National Weather Service concluded in August that its forecasters did not give timely warnings of the advancing storm.

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