Boat light strips must meet USCG standards

By Darlene McCormick Sanchez

Lone Star Outdoor News

Photo from BoatUS: Light strips like these could run afoul of rules.

Inexpensive LED light strips may be appealing for anglers who want to install them as navigation lights on fishing boats, but officials are warning that could lead to a citation or even an accident.

Advances in technology have made LEDs seem like a good solution for navigation and aesthetic lighting, but the U.S. Coast Guard has issued a warning that some of the new lights don’t meet standards and could increase the chances of a collision.

Texas Game Warden Assistant Commander Cody Jones, who serves as the state’s head boating law administrator, said wardens across the state have been issuing warnings and some citations because of improper lighting.

Jones said boat owners are running into trouble when lights aren’t USCG approved for navigation or interfere with navigation. It’s up to wardens to enforce USCG regulations whether boats are operated in freshwater or saltwater.

“That’s where most folks are getting caught up. You just can’t rig up a boat with lights,” he said.

Lake Fork Game Warden Derek Spitzer said he understands that people like the light strips, and it’s hard for people to accept they aren’t allowed. A memo came out a few months ago from the department regarding the USCG’s stance on the issue.

“The Coast Guard makes those rules,” Spitzer said.

But the issue with LED strip lights used for navigation is with the cut-off angles and their lack of approval by the USCG. Jones said that the LED strips have yet to meet the angling requirements that help boaters determine navigation based on the visibility of the green and red lights. If a manufacturer came up with a rope or strip light that could meet the angle requirements and gained the proper certification, then he doesn’t see why the USCG would not approve it.

The USCG reports that some boaters have hazardously installed unapproved red and green LED strip lighting on the bow, which hampers other boaters’ efforts to avoid collision, according to a press release from BoatUS, a recreational boating association.

Another issue with strip lights is that they lack the certification requirements of the USCG. Unapproved lighting is typically less expensive, making them a tempting choice for uninformed consumers. Use of lights that do not provide the proper chromaticity, luminous intensity, or cut-off angles could result in a boating violation or potentially cause an accident.

The USCG says things to look for on packaging or the light itself include: USCG approval, the rated visibility of the light in nautical miles, meets ABYC A-16, name of the laboratory conducting the test, date tested, along with manufacturer, and model number.

Jones said decorative lighting cannot interfere with navigation lights. That means boaters can’t just add LED strip lights to go with approved navigation lights. Boaters could receive a citation, he said. Overpowering LED lights could pose an issue, too. For example, a bright white rope light might overshadow the red and green navigational lights, or be so bright they make it difficult for the driver to see. USCG rules say that decorative lighting cannot: be mistaken for navigation lights, impair the vision or distinctive character of approved navigation lights, or interfere with the operator’s ability to maintain a proper lookout.

Also of concern is that some of the decorative blue lights could be mistaken for law enforcement lights. Jones pointed out that lights that flash with the beat of a speaker, for example, could be mistaken for a flashing blue light. Another example would be blue underwater LED lights can appear to be flashing if there is wave action, giving the appearance of a flashing blue light.

The point is that boaters need to be aware that any old light won’t suffice when it comes down to safety.

“We’ve tried to put out information. Game wardens like to educate before they enforce anything,” Jones said.