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The Station Wagon Effect - An Important Safety Issue

Younger readers might not remember a time before the advent of minivans and SUVs, when large station wagons were once the vehicle of choice for hauling families and groceries. I grew up in that era and remember it as a time when parents gingerly lit up cigarettes with the windows rolled up as they blissfully drove kids around town in these lumbering land yachts. While that unhealthy mindset is virtually gone today, together with wood paneled Ford Country Squires that were once an icon of American suburbia, the term station wagon might still remain relevant. This is because of a dubious association with a phenomenon known as the “station wagon effect,” which involves the incursion of exhaust fumes into cabin spaces on small boats. The phenomenon was highlighted in a lawsuit involving a boat canopy and its side curtains. The matter arose when sea spray entered the passenger spaces on a new powerboat, causing riders to get wet. The owner sued the dealer, claiming the vessel was defective. The lower court ruled in favor of the dealer, after which the matter was appealed. The phenomenon results from low pressure air at the trailing end of moving boat and is generally associated with something far more dangerous than seawater mist, carbon monoxide. While a shower of salty spray could be an annoyance to passengers, incursion of carbon monoxide could be life threatening. It was observed that water spray had not entered when the owner had not used the canopy. When the canopy was used, sea spray entered. The designer testified that although a canopy and side curtains could be used at full power, they would result in a low-pressure zone, creating this station wagon effect that drew water back into the boat. The appeals court ruled in favor of the dealer. The hazards posed by this station wagon effect are not something new. Boats had been tested for carbon monoxide exposure in the past. It was discovered that deploying canvas covers on a moving boat caused dangerous concentrations of carbon monoxide. One of the sinister things about carbon monoxide exposure is that it can be subtle. At low concentrations, victims could experience mild headaches and breathlessness. Continued exposure could cause more severe headaches, dizziness, nausea, and impairment of judgment. Perhaps the worst thing about carbon monoxide is that it is quiet, odorless, and colorless. With raw fuel vapors, at least one has a fighting chance because you know they’re out there. It’s interesting that a lawsuit about sea spray could shed light on a sinister vapor that finds its way into boats by the same airflow patterns. Now as far as those parents who smoked in their station wagons, that was simply the way society was back then. I would never advocate smoking or defend such conduct, but it was not taken as seriously in those days. Cigarettes were even seen as a cultural bridge of friendship, as odd as that may seem today. I can remember a time back around forty years ago on a training cruise aboard Maritime College’s Empire State V. We were steaming out of England back out to the open sea. With the help of tugs, the ship was slowly transiting some tortuous tight turns through a sparsely populated industrial area, and there sitting on a river bank was a young British couple. Their hair was dyed some color that human hair doesn’t come in, and they would have easily fit into any 80s music video. They probably should have been in school or something, but they were just a couple of innocent and idle kids trainspotting, shipspotting, or looking for a place to hang out. Smiling sheepishly, they asked, “Got a smoke?” Back then, cigarettes were liberally sold in cartons aboard the ship and a lot of us carried them. We threw them a friendly fusillade of about a hundred packs of cigarettes that seemed to fill the sky like the scene from the movie Braveheart where archers unleash their arrows. These two kids couldn’t believe their eyes. They were thrilled at this generous gift from a friendly ship lined with cadets departing their waters. Do something like that today and it would be met with the same scorn as parents who smoked in their station wagons fifty years ago! Reference: Paulsen v. Spellman’s Marina, LLC, Appeal No. 2011AP397, Court of Appeals, State of Wisconsin

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