New law requires boaters make use of engine cut-off switch in federal waters Lake Michigan, Green Bay

Boaters on Lake Michigan and other federal waters in Wisconsin will have to adhere to a new law requiring an engine cut-off switch to keep themselves and others safe. 

All boats with an engine cut-off switch will be required to make use of it, according to the United States Coast Guard, starting this month.

The switch is typically a coiled bungee cord lanyard, which can be clipped onto the clothing or life jacket of the boat operator. In the case the operator goes overboard or is thrown back from the controls, the engine will turn off, instead of continuing on through the water unmanned. 

The law went into effect April 1 and applies to all navigable waters of the U.S., including Lake Michigan, Green Bay, the Mississippi River and tributaries of those bodies of water.

It applies to covered recreational vessels, which means any motorized boat with three or more horsepower that is less than 26 feet in length, according to the Coast Guard boating website

The new rule will be enforced only by members of the Coast Guard at this point, not the state Department of Natural Resources, local sheriffs or other municipal controls. Being found not using the switch if your boat has one could result in a warning, fine or even being asked to leave. 

All boats built after January 2020 are required to have an engine cut-off switch, said Darren Kuhn, the DNR recreation warden for the northeast region of Wisconsin. Many boats built before then already had them though, and therefore will be required to use them. Any boats that were not built with a cut-off switch won’t be penalized, but it could be a good idea to retrofit one onto the boat, Kuhn said. 

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Basically, the new law will prevent rogue boats from jetting away unmanned or going off in a “death spin” with the operator in the water. 

“If unmanned, the boat keeps generally going forward, so for example in the Milwaukee harbor, if a boat was out of control, the damage it could cause is substantial,” he said. “Property damage, personal damage. And then it falls to first responders to find some way to stop it and get from a patrol boat and into the out-of-control boat — or the boat might be rammed up onto a break wall so no one else gets hurt.

“It’s an immense safety issue,” Kuhn said. 

The law won’t affect people who are trolling while fishing though, because it’s a specifically exempt activity. The rules will apply, however, when a boat is moving through the water quickly to get to a fishing spot or heading back to the dock, he said. 

While the engine cut-off switch will help to keep boats and operators safer, there are other measures that should also be considered as boaters prepare to hit the water again this spring and summer. 

“A law that is not new is life jackets, and now that people are getting boats back into the water, people have taken out life jackets and not put them back on the boat, it’s easy to overlook,” Kuhn said. “But you need one wearable life jacket per person on the boat. They have to be on board.” 

In the case of an event where an operator is thrown from the boat, the engine cut-off switch and a life jacket can work to save lives, he said. 

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Lights are also an important part of boat safety, and a violation seen quite a bit as boats are getting back on the water for the season. Kuhn said boaters should plan to check their red and green navigation lights as well as the white lights on boats to make sure they’re working and visible.

And if a boater has questions about safety or making sure their vessel is ready for the summer, wardens, local law enforcement and Coast Guard employees are more than happy to do a quick safety inspection. 

“If people see a warden at a gas station and want a quick inspection, we can look and see if they have everything,” he said. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura