Operators of recreational boats less than 26 feet long on federally-regulated waters, including Lake Superior, are now required to have and to use an engine cut-off switch and associated engine cut-off lanyard under a new federal law passed by Congress and enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The cut-off, or “kill switch,” is intended to prevent runaway vessels. The shut-off link, usually a lanyard, attaches the boat operator to a switch that shuts off the engine if the operator is suddenly displaced from the helm.

The new law went into effect April 1.

Most modern boats already are equipped with the lanyard-linked kill switches from the manufacturer — a federal law for boats made since 2020 — and now new, wireless kill devices have recently been developed and are also approved for use.

These devices use an electronic fob that is carried by the operator and senses when it is submerged in water, activating the ECOS and turning the engine off. Wireless devices are available on the aftermarket and are beginning to become available as manufacturer-installed options.

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Supporters of the new regulation say it will help prevent so-called "circle of death'' accidents where boaters are ejected from the craft, which then makes increasingly smaller circles until it strikes the people in the water.

"Each year, the Coast Guard receives reports of recreational vessel operators who fall or are suddenly and unexpectedly thrown out of their boat. These events have led to injuries and deaths," the agency said in a recent notice of the new law. “During these incidents, the boat continues to operate with no one in control of the vessel, leaving the operator stranded in the water as the boat continues on course, or the boat begins to circle the person in the water eventually striking them, often with the propeller.”

Federal law requires that the kill switch be in use by the operator if the helm is not inside a cabin and when the boat is on plane. Common situations where the kill switch would not be required to be in use include docking/trailering, trolling and operating in no-wake zones.

"The Coast Guard believes that the overwhelming majority of recreational vessels produced for decades have had an (shut-off switch) installed, so this new use requirement simply obligates recreational vessel operators to use critical safety equipment already present on their boat," the agency noted.

The new law does not apply if the boat was made before 2020 and does not have a cut-off switch. For more information, go to uscgboating.org/recreational-boaters/engine-cut-off-switch-faq.php.