Know Your Boat Law: The Engine Cut-Off Switch (ECOS)

You’ll want to pay attention to the new engine cut-off switch rules (as of April 2021) that have come into effect. Boat operators sometimes lose control of the helm, and having an emergency cut-off switch can help you regain control of your vessel if that happens. The new rules require you to use at least one type of cut-off switch when operating a boat.

These regulations are designed to improve boater safety by preventing injury and damage. This article will cover:

  • Key requirements of ECOS
  • What types of boats are affected
  • Who needs to comply 
  • Potential penalties for non-compliance
  • Tips on how to make sure you’re following the rules

Overview of engine cut-off switch requirements

By requiring the use of engine cut-off switches, the US Coast Guard hopes to reduce the number and severity of accidents. The devices are relatively inexpensive and easy to install, and they can make a big difference in boating safety.

These engine cut-off switches, also known as kill switches, are designed to shut off the engine in case of an emergency or when the operator becomes separated from the controls.

When using an engine cut-off switch, the operator should attach the lanyard or other device to their person before starting the engine. 

Boats that require ECOS

The new regulations apply to recreational boats that are less than 26 feet in length and are equipped with an engine that produces more than 115 horsepower. This includes boats that are powered by outboard motors, sterndrives, and inboard motors.

Who needs to comply

The rule applies to both manufacturers and operators of these boats. Manufacturers are required to install engine cut-off switches on new boats that meet the criteria, while operators are required to use the devices while underway.

Types of engine cut-off switches

The availability and type of engine cutoff switches can vary depending on the boat manufacturer, model, and year. Boat operators should always familiarize themselves with the specific type of engine cutoff switch installed on their vessel.

  1. Lanyard/Pull Cord Switch: This is the most common type of engine cut-off switch. It consists of a lanyard or a pull cord attached to a switch or a clip. The operator wears the lanyard around their wrist or attaches it to their life jacket. If the operator is thrown from the helm or is otherwise forcibly separated from the controls, the lanyard is pulled, which activates the switch and shuts off the engine.
  2. Wireless/Wireless Fob Switch: These cut-off switches use wireless technology to communicate between a small transmitter, often in the form of a key fob or wristband, and a receiver unit installed on the boat. When the operator moves out of range of the receiver, the signal is lost, triggering the engine cut-off.
  3. Pressure Switch: This type of switch is typically installed on the boat’s helm or steering wheel. It senses the pressure or weight applied by the operator’s hand and remains engaged as long as pressure is maintained. If the operator falls or is thrown overboard, the pressure is released, triggering the switch and shutting off the engine.
  4. Touch-Sensitive Switch: Some boats may feature touch-sensitive engine cut-off switches. These switches use conductive technology to detect the presence of the operator’s hand on a designated area, such as the helm or control panel. If the operator’s hand is removed, the switch is triggered, and the engine is shut down.

Regardless of the type of switch used, it’s important to make sure that it is properly installed and maintained in order to ensure it’ll work when it’s needed.

Exemptions to the engine cut-off switch rule

There are certain situations where operators of recreational boats are exempt from the engine cut-off switch rule. These include situations where the boat is operating at slow speeds, such as when docking or trolling, or when the operator is performing activities that require them to be outside of the helm area, such as fishing or watersports.

Additionally, the US Coast Guard has provided exemptions for some older boats and boats that were built without the necessary wiring or other equipment to support the use of an engine cut-off switch.

Penalties for non-compliance with engine cut-off switch requirements

Operators of recreational boats who fail to comply with the requirements can face penalties, including fines and other enforcement actions. The penalties can vary depending on the severity of the violation and other factors, but can range from a warning to a substantial fine and citation.

Boaters are urged to employ emergency cut-off switches not only because of a potential penalty but because it is important for the safety of everyone on board their boat. 

A man is operating a boat while using an Engine Cut-Off Switch attached to the steering wheel.

Image courtesy US Coast Guard

Resources for boaters to learn more about engine cut-off switches

The US Coast Guard provides the most up-to-date information, including FAQs about engine/propulsion cut-off devices.

Boat manufacturers and retailers can also provide information on the types of engine cut-off switches that are available and how to properly install and use them.

Summary

Engine cut-off switches are an important safety device that can help prevent accidents caused by runaway boats. The US Coast Guard has recently updated its regulations to require the use of engine cut-off switches on certain types of recreational boats. By understanding the requirements and properly installing and using an engine cut-off switch, boaters can improve safety on the water and avoid penalties for non-compliance. There are plenty of resources to help boaters understand the who, what, when, where, and why of engine cut-off switches (ECOS).

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