Just how stupid are we?

The button under the plastic safety cover on the front of your VHF radio can help save your life, or it can do nothing at all — it’s up to you.

Every now and then, you hear someone ask a question and you just know they don’t want to hear an honest answer. “Does this make me look fat?” is an example that has become a social joke (except in the case of husbands dopey enough to answer in the affirmative).

But it was another questionable query, “Just how stupid do you think I am?” that came to mind when I read a recent news release from the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA).

The U.S. Coast Guard has asked NMEA to assist in finding a solution that will help boaters save their own lives. Today’s fixed-mount VHF radios are required to have a built-in emergency feature called Digital Selective Calling (DSC). In an emergency, anyone onboard can simply flip the protective plastic cover out of the way and press the DSC button once. The radio automatically starts transmitting a distress call that hopefully includes a unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number and continues to send the message even if everyone on board is incapacitated.

The call is automatically received and resent by other DSC-equipped boats within VHF radio range. Eventually the call reaches the Coast Guard. All coastal waters are not yet protected by the DSC system, but the latest coverage map shows an unbroken string of in-service coastal DSC stations stretching east from Corpus Christi, Texas, around Florida and then north up to Maine.

What happens after the Coast Guard receives your distress call is directly related to that question about stupid. You are supposed to apply for a free MMSI number when you buy one of the new DSC-equipped radios. It’s easy; you can even download the registration form from the Boat US website at boatus.com/mmsi. The form records your name, address, phone numbers, email address, primary and alternate emergency contact names and phone numbers, boat name, home port, boat type and other information that can help the Coast Guard find and identify your boat when the distress call including your MMSI number is received. Without this information, the Coast Guard has no idea who you are, what kind of boat is in distress and has only the vaguest hint as to where to start searching for you.

DSC-equipped radios can also be connected to a boat’s GPS, and linking the two units adds your present latitude and longitude to the DSC emergency message. Sending your current position along with your registered MMSI number means the Coast Guard now knows who you are, what your boat looks like and, most importantly, where you are.

So, exactly how does stupid enter into all this? In a Feb. 23 letter, the U.S Coast Guard’s Rear Admiral R.E. Day explained to NMEA President David Hayden that “of the roughly 100 digital selective calling distress alerts we are now receiving each month, approximately nine out of 10 do not have position information (i.e. do not have a GPS navigation receiver connected to their DSC-equipped VHF radio), and approximately six out of 10 have not registered their Maritime Mobile Service Identity. Despite the promises DSC technology offers in significantly reducing the alerting and search time for mariners in distress, there’s little a Coast Guard watch stander can do after receiving a distress alert with no position information, using an unregistered MMSI, and having no follow-up voice communications.”

This means roughly 60 percent of coastal boat owners who have used their DSC radios’ emergency feature didn’t bother registering them to get an MMSI number, and an incredible 90 percent didn’t think their lives and the lives of their passengers were worth the “bother” of linking their radios to their GPS units! We aren’t talking about people smart enough to carry EPIRBs or PLBs — which send distress calls to the international search and rescue satellites — these percentages are just for boaters who sent distress signals through the VHF radio DSC network.

The Coast Guard and NMEA hope that public outreach efforts will grow the number of boaters who register their radios and connect them to GPS. The NMEA is also working with its member manufacturers and dealers to get the word out and to make the radio-GPS link simpler. But as things stand, they can do little more than ask for voluntary compliance.

I hope I’m completely wrong here, but I’m afraid the numbers aren’t going to shift much even if the Coast Guard joins with the FCC to get laws passed that mandate compliance. That would put us back into the old government intrusion versus personal freedom argument that those of us with gray hair witnessed over automotive seatbelts.

How many people do you know who would still rather die in a wreck than fasten their seatbelt? I’m hoping that when more people understand the facts, most of this needless risk will go away.

If not, then I will have to assume that Forrest Gump was right: Stupid is as stupid does.

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