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Coast Guard mulls mandatory education

Survey shows 65 percent of boaters have never taken a safety course

Survey shows 65 percent of boaters have never taken a safety course

The Coast Guard’s advisory body on recreational boating has recommended it ask Congress for the authority to require boaters in U.S. waters to take a state-administered boating safety course.

The National Boating Safety Advisory Council adopted the resolution at a late April business meeting in Norfolk, Va.

NBSAC also advised the Coast Guard to appoint a panel of safety advocates from industry, media and the enforcement community to work on promoting life jacket use. They will try to get 44 percent of boaters to wear their PFDs by 2007; currently that figure is 22 percent.

The Coast Guard has identified failure to wear life jackets and lack of boating education as two big contributors to boating deaths. “Well over 50 percent of fatalities could be stopped by wearing PFDs,” says Jeff Hoedt, NBSAC executive director.

Hoedt says the Coast Guard asked NBSAC whether it should adopt a regulation requiring boaters to wear life jackets. “This was their answer,” he says. NBSAC wants the Coast Guard panel to look for ways to promote voluntary wear and to report annually to NBSAC its strategies and progress in reaching wear rates of 27.5 percent by 2005, 33 percent by 2006, and 44 percent by 2007.

“NBSAC will evaluate the reports and recommend other measures [if necessary] for PFD wear,” Hoedt says. Telling boaters they must wear a PFD hasn’t been ruled out, if voluntary measures don’t work.

Three states this year proposed laws mandating PFD use. A Mississippi bill died quickly; bills in Louisiana and New York were still under consideration, Hoedt says.

A 2002 National Recreational Boating Survey conducted by the Coast Guard found that 65 percent of boat operators have never taken a boating safety course. NBSAC wants the Coast Guard to ask Congress for authority to adopt regulations requiring boaters to take a safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and administered by the state under NASBLA’s model boating education act. The model act requires boaters born after a certain date, usually those not yet 18 years old when the act is adopted, to take a safety course. Over time, all young people coming into boating are certified. Older boaters are grandfathered in.

Hoedt says the recommendation to seek that authority falls short of advising the Coast Guard to adopt a mandatory education regulation. Under the April resolution, the Coast Guard still has the discretion to decide if a mandatory education regulation is necessary or desirable.

According to NASBLA 39 states have boating education requirements, but they are a hodgepodge. Alabama, for instance, requires all its boaters to take an exam to get a boating license. Connecticut boaters must obtain a safe boating certificate by completing an approved basic boating course or passing an equivalency exam. Idaho mandates boating safety courses only for repeat marine offenders and those convicted of boating under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Colorado sends only personal watercraft operators under 16 years old to required classes. (The minimum age to operate a PWC in Colorado is 14.)

Hoedt says NBSAC is concerned about the crazy quilt of boating education laws and some states’ refusal to extend reciprocal boating privileges to out-of-state boaters who comply with the education requirements of their home state but not the state they are visiting.

“There is a huge amount of diversity,” Hoedt says.