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Summer incidents bring calls for tougher laws

A push for tougher New York boating safety laws continues to escalate in the wake of a Fourth of July accident in which three children died.

Summer incidents bring calls for tougher laws

The capsize of a 34-foot Silverton convertible in Oyster Bay after a fireworks display, a boating-while-intoxicated fatality and other BWI arrests this summer have spurred several legislative proposals. And a succession of speakers at a legislative committee hearing in August argued that the state's boating safety laws should be strengthened significantly.

The witnesses who got the most media attention at the state Senate Standing Committee on Investigations and Government Operations hearing in Oyster Bay were the parents of Victoria Gaines, 7, who died with two other children in the cabin of Kandi Won when it capsized with 27 people on board. Nassau County police are still investigating the accident to determine whether overloading, mechanical or equipment failure, wakes or other factors caused the capsize.

Lisa and Paul Gaines flanked their attorney, Michael Della, as he made a statement on their behalf. "This could have and should have been prevented," Della said as a photograph of Victoria was propped up on the table next to Lisa Gaines. "If ever there was a time to act, it is right now."

Della says the family is urging legislation that would require boaters to take a safety class and would set maximum occupancy limits for all recreational boats. The Coast Guard sets occupancy limits only for boats 20 feet or smaller, but U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has called on the agency to change that policy. The family also says there should be a greatly increased presence by marine enforcement agencies at events that draw large numbers of boats.

After Della testified, Paul and Lisa Gaines, each holding a photograph of Victoria, met with reporters outside Oyster Bay Town Hall. "I just want to do everything I can to prevent this from ever happening again," Paul Gaines said. "I cannot stand the thought of this loss of my daughter's life being in vain.

"We're looking to impose some very, very simple changes in the boating world ... so we can make our waterways safer so something like this never happens again," he added. "This was a surely avoidable incident."

State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey told the committee, "We are completely open to the ideas" proposed by the speakers and committee members. But, she says, any proposed legislation has to be examined to see whether it is compatible with federal navigation laws and whether it's practical to enforce.

Sgt. John Owen, deputy commanding officer with the Nassau County police Marine Bureau, told the committee, "The [current] laws are fine. The problem is the follow-up." He says there are no state databases that allow any jurisdiction to determine whether a boater has been charged with offenses in other jurisdictions or to track multiple violations for prosecution. "You can have numerous tickets and still go boating," he says, unlike a motor-vehicle driver, who would lose the privilege of driving.
Lawrence Postel, district commander for the U.S. Power Squadrons, says his organization "fully supports all efforts to mandate that every boater take, at the very least, the basic boating class." He says classroom instruction should be augmented by online learning options to make education more accessible.

But Chris Squeri, executive director of the New York Marine Trades Association, says mandatory education might not be the answer. He says New York's fatality rate is lower than those of New Jersey and Connecticut, although New York has more registered boats and the other two states have mandatory education.

"Mandatory education is not necessarily going to solve it," he says, referring to the issue of problems on the water.

He says his group supports voluntary education and stronger BWI laws, including requiring those convicted of BWI to take safety courses.

The same week the hearing was held, safety advocates joined government officials in support of a proposed Suffolk County law that would require all boaters to take a training course or face fines and even jail time for repeat offenses.

"How many more tragedies must we have in our community?" asked county legislator Steve Stern, D-Huntington, sponsor of the bill, which he hopes will be superseded by a state law requiring a boating course.

Gina Lieneck, who suffered serious head and neck injuries and whose 12-year-old daughter was fatally injured in a 2005 collision on Great South Bay, joined Stern to say, "People need to have the knowledge. You should not be able to buy a boat and the next day put it in the water."

And Joseph Genovese, a licensed captain from Copiague Harbor, says it makes "absolutely no sense" that someone has to take a boating class to operate a personal watercraft, "but you could go out and buy a Queen Mary and you don't need [any] credentials. This is something that's really needed. People have no idea that there are rules of the road."

On the state level, Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr., R-Merrick, chairman of the Senate's Transportation Committee, has introduced two boating safety bills. One would require all boaters to take a safety course. The other would make it a felony to drive a boat while drunk with children aboard, institute mandatory suspensions of boating privileges and motor vehicle driver's licenses and create a new charge of aggravated BWI for driving a boat with a blood-alcohol level of 0.18 percent or higher. The state's legal limit is 0.08. The bill also would link driving, boating and snowmobiling under-the-influence offenses so violators could be charged as repeat offenders.

The push for tougher laws got another boost the weekend before the state hearing: A Long Island resident, Charles D. Miller, 47, of Manhasset, was charged with BWI after he was stopped in Greenport by a Southold Bay constable who determined that the 22-foot boat was overcrowded, with 16 children on board.

October 2012 issuel.