This is a great topic and touches on several key points that through my years of experience we, as the pointy end of the spear in boating safety have really failed to recognize. I fully agree that operator behavior is the key element in any incident. My personal belief is that we fall short on recognizing the paradigms in our educational focused when pinpointing the problem and then addressing corrective measures. Looking over the comments everyone hits on what I see is the most important part of operating a vessel but the fundamental understanding of how Navigation Rules actually work and should be applied remain elusive.
Your analogy using motor vehicles is one I share but I use it in a slightly different context. The basic safety fundamentals of both boating and driving a vehicle is to avoid hitting anything. As mentioned, in the motor vehicle world, there are lanes and signs, etc., that keep drivers in their lane (no pun intended). With the lack of those boundaries and warnings boating becomes a different thing all together. What they both share is the basic fundamental of relative motion. With driving a car relative motion becomes muscle memory just as it does when walking through a crowded mall but with boating we lose all concept of it. This by-in-large is due to the way we present it or do not present it. We intently focus on the interaction of when risk of collision actually exists, crossing, overt taking or meeting, rather than identifying risk of collision prior to having to take action far before having to react to close quarters situations. What adds to the problem is that while operating a car or vessel the primary responsibility of the operator is driving the vehicle. One of the things I always stress when looking at initial causes of an accident is if the operator was more involved in the activity than the vessel operation. I understand the differences, you don't fish from or tow the kids behind the car but we don't emphasize that difference or focus on how the responsibility of the operator to separate themselves and pay more attention to operate the boat, this brings me to Nav Rules.
As part of the transformational change to teach operators we should be focusing our efforts on Rules, 5 (lookout), 6 (Speed), 7 (Risk of Collision) and 8 (Actions to Avoid Collision). We only emphasize Rules 13 (Overtaking), 14 (Head On), 15 (Crossing), 16 (Give Way) and 17 (Stand On) which are actions that are required after the fact once you determine risk of collision exists. These rules are in support of Rule 8 as actions to take when risk of collision exists. The key in all of this is to identify risk of collision long before its time to take action and avoid a close quarter's situation. This requires someone paying attention with situational awareness rather than being more involved in the activity. It's a tough job!
Last, Paddled craft and Navigation Rules. In Rule 3 a vessel is defined as "every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft and sea planes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on the water". This includes paddle craft. Subpart I of the rules, Conduct of Vessels in Any Condition of Visibility (Rules 5 thru 10) applies to all vessels. Only in Subpart II and II do we start to single out specific types of vessels. Both Subpart II and III focus on the conduct of vessels that are in sight of one another or not insight. As you will notice paddle craft are not specifically identified. This means that all rules under these subparts that states a "vessel" apply to paddle craft.
It all begins with recognizing risk of collision and then taking early and decisive steps to prevent it.
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