The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday declared parasailing to be risky and urged the U.S. Coast Guard to require that operators be licensed.
"Passengers seeking to enjoy the thrill, adventure and panoramic views of parasailing risk becoming accident victims," the NTSB report issued in Washington stated. "Due to the nature of parasailing, accidents usually result in either serious injury or death."
In examining a series of accidents, the NTSB said "human error" by operators is the main cause of parasailing accidents due to "poor judgment, lack of sufficient experience, improper training" and other factors such as worn or poorly maintained gear, ignorance about overloading tow ropes and other equipment, and failure to monitor wind speeds and changing weather.
The NTSB said there are currently no uniform requirements for operator training, equipment inspection or suspension of operations in bad weather.
The Coast Guard, however, does not appear eager to get involved with licensing. Asked to comment on the licensing proposal, Coast Guard spokesman Carlos A. Diaz reiterated an emailed statement from his agency noting simply that it continues to work with the parasailing industry and government entities to improve training, safety and standards.
Some 3 million to 5 million people participate in parasailing each year, with about 325 operators in the U.S. and its territories, including Puerto Rico.
The Parasail Safety Council estimates that 73 people died in parasailing accidents between 1982 to 2012, with 429 seriously injured in the course of taking 130 million rides. Council founder Mark McCulloh said he "absolutely" supports the NTSB's recommendation for the Coast Guard to license operators.
The NTSB said requiring operators to be licensed "would not eliminate all shortcomings" but "would set a minimum level of experience and professional competence."
The NTSB report cited details on parasailing accidents since 2009 in which seven people died and four were injured. Some victims drowned as they were dragged through the water, others crashed into buildings or power lines, and one died when a worn-out harness separated from the flight bar.
Even a knot commonly used to fasten tow ropes is risky, the agency said, because the knot reduces rope strength "by as much as 70 percent, even on brand-new, otherwise strong ropes." Ropes are further weakened by wind, usage, and sun and saltwater exposure.
The NTSB also recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration review regulations intended to avoid collisions between parasailing vessels and aircraft. Among other things, the NTSB cited a contradiction between an FAA rule that gives aircraft the right of way over parasailing vessels and other navigation rules that suggest parasailing vessels are restricted in their ability to maneuver. One accident cited involved a collision between a banner-towing plane and a parasailing operation off of Gulf Shores, Alabama.
In an emailed comment, the FAA said it would review the NTSB's recommendations and consider efforts to reduce the risk of midair collisions.
The NTSB also urged drafting of model legislation by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators as a way to "not only call attention to the significant risk associated with the activity," but also to make it easier for state legislatures and other governmental bodies to regulate the industry.
Florida, which is home to a third of all U.S. parasailing operations with about 100 operators, recently passed legislation requiring insurance for the industry and safety briefings.
McCulloh said the NTSB report was accurate and educational but "falls short" of safety measures such as changes in harness design.
The Water Sports Industry Association supports the NTSB recommendations and said it has been working to develop safety standards for parasailing. "We have no issues with having the industry regulated," said WSIA executive director Larry Meddock. "We think it's the right thing to do."
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