- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

RICHMOND | Randy and his buddy are anchored on the river, with the sound of the ripples against their boat drowned out only by the buzzing of a nearby boat motor.

The buzzing gets louder and closer, until with a sudden crunch the white center-console boat crashes into the side of Randy’s, jumps over the side and knocks Randy on the head, splattering bright red down the hull.

Luckily, Randy is a rescue dummy and the bright red is acrylic paint, not blood. It’s all part of a project that crashes boats in order to teach investigators how to reconstruct recreational boating collisions and, ultimately, improve boating safety.

The collisions on an isolated part of the James River last month were recorded, and the damaged boats, video and data gathered from the scene will be used in training courses for local, state and federal marine law enforcement officers across the country.

“It gives officers a chance to see it, because very few times do police officers have the opportunity to witness a traffic crash, let alone a boat collision,” said Jim Getz, coordinator of the project for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators in Lexington, Ky.

Last year, 709 people died in nearly 4,800 recreational boating accidents, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. While most deaths were caused by falling overboard, 60 boaters died and an additional 856 were injured in collisions.

Through grants from the Coast Guard, Mr. Getz’ organization teaches law enforcement officials how to investigate boating accidents. The information gathered from the crashes will provide teaching materials for advanced classes taught each year at the National Transportation Safety Board’s training academy in Ashburn.

Officers who take the class examine dents, scratches and other damage on the boats, theorize how the crash happened, and then they get to watch video of the actual crash and see whether they were right. They then go take another look at the boats to see what they may have missed.

Seeing the crashes improves investigators’ understanding of what really happens when two boats collide, said Miles Beam, an engineer and boat crash investigator who does consulting in criminal and civil cases.

“It is a complex, very dynamic event, and the only way to fully understand it is to study actual collisions, where you know what actually happened and can carefully examine the aftermath,” Mr. Beam said.

The last staged collisions took place a decade ago, and the boats had quite a bit of wear and tear, Mr. Getz said. Another advantage to the new round of crashes is that this time the group figured out how to crash two moving boats, where before one remained stationary and the crash didn’t give a complete picture of what happens in a real accident.

All the boats - from bass boats and cuddy cabins to pontoon boats and personal watercraft - were donated. For this project, 12 pairs were crashed over two years, each engineered to be driven by remote control.

Data from the crashes will be used to teach investigators and to develop safer boats and shape boating safety regulations across the country.

It also can help crash victims, said Glenn Moates, assistant chief of the boating division for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

“By learning firsthand how boats behave and react during a collision, an investigator can more accurately determine and describe what happened,” he said, adding that accurate reports can help victims get justice in court or compensation from insurance companies.

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