The August 2005 crash off Bay Shore, New York, left physical and psychological damage that lingers to this day.
Frank and Gina Lieneck were out on a 24-foot Bayliner with three children, including their 11- and 13-year-old daughters. A 25-foot Grady-White slammed into them, with its bow plowing straight into the Bayliner’s starboard side. The Grady-White, according to news reports, had been tearing across the water at full throttle. It hit with such force that it tore a gash through the Bayliner, mounted its gunwale and almost kept going straight over it.
The Lienecks were hospitalized with injuries including brain trauma that they still wrestle with today. Their 11-year-old, Brianna, was killed.
“We had a canopy that collapsed on Brianna and broke her neck,” Gina Lieneck recalls. “All her organs were damaged.”
This past June, the New York Assembly passed a bill known as “Brianna’s Law” in her memory. The legislation didn’t make it through the state Senate before the legislative session expired, but Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, a Democrat, says that both she and co-sponsoring Senator Phil Boyle, a Republican, plan to reintroduce it during the next session in January.
“He’s committed to making it a priority and having more discussions over the summer to make sure it’s concrete legislation that can pass in both houses, and that can help keep New York’s waterways safe,” Jean-Pierre told Soundings.
Brianna’s law would require all boaters operating mechanically propelled vessels on the state’s waterways to complete a boating safety course. Currently in New York, only operators born after 1996 (age 22 or younger) are required to receive boater education.
The driver of the boat that killed Brianna Lieneck was a 33-year-old air traffic controller.
“When you look at the Coast Guard statistics, it’s not the young ones causing accidents,” Gina Lieneck told Soundings. “It’s the old ones. It’s mostly people 30 and older.”
In fact, fatalities nationwide are more than double for older skippers, according to the U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics for 2017. Operators 36 and older were involved in accidents that led to 421 deaths.
Operators 35 and younger were involved in 191 fatal accidents.
In cases where the history was known, 81 percent of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. Only 14 percent of deaths occurred on vessels where the operator had received a nationally approved boating safety education certificate.
“Just because you’ve been doing something for 50 years doesn’t mean you’re doing it right,” Jean-Pierre says.
The existing law for entry-age boaters alone leaves New York among fewer than a half-dozen states without a mandatory boater education requirement, says David Kennedy government affairs manager at BoatUS — which offers online boater education courses and, to some people’s surprise, opposed
Brianna’s Law as it was originally written.
It’s not that BoatUS is against mandatory boater education in New York or anywhere else, Kennedy told Soundings. One of the group’s concerns was that the original legislation would have mandated that all boaters take courses in brick-and-mortar classrooms.
“That was a major problem for us,”
Kennedy said. “We absolutely oppose that. Online education is where things are going and how people want to get this kind of education. It works.”
Jean-Pierre said the legislation was amended to allow for online courses, but that concerns remain about how to ensure that people clicking digital boxes on laptops are the same people driving boats in places like Great South Bay, off Long Island, where Brianna Lieneck was killed.
“The Department of Parks would have to develop some sort of verification process to make sure that the person seeking the boating certificate is the same person taking the boating course,” Jean-Pierre said.
Another concern that led BoatUS to oppose the original legislation was that Brianna’s Law would have required all boaters to take the courses simultaneously — and New York is a state with 450,000 registered boats. Even with online courses available, Kennedy says, such deadlines have been problematic in other states.
“What we’ve seen is that when you put this big bottleneck through, it absolutely jams the system,” he says. “The thing that we know is that as automated as we want to get, trying to cram everybody through at once doesn’t work well. The people who want a classroom, there won’t be enough classrooms. A phase-in is a much smarter way of doing it.”
California is the most recent large state to add a mandatory boater-education law, he says; it went into effect this past January, with a phasing-in approach depending on the age of the boat operator.
“We’re looking at this year as a pilot there,” Kennedy says. “It’s 20 and younger, and these are reasonably technically savvy people. Next year it will be 25 and under, and the year after it’s 30 and under, that’s when we’ll see how it really goes.”
Virginia did a similar phase-in, Kennedy says, and it worked — although, just as in New York with some upstate boaters this past summer, old salts on Virginia’s Smith Mountain Lake tried to fight that law’s enactment.
“They just did not like it,” he says of older boaters resisting the courses. “It requires you to spend some time and take the class. But they were lobbying the Virginia legislature to try and get out of it. Somebody once said, ‘Once the dock lines come off, everybody’s a libertarian.’”
Jean-Pierre said opposition in New York this past summer focused on fishing tournaments and boat dealerships, whose operators feared a decline in participation and sales.
“I don’t see this as being a deterrent for any tournaments or for people buying boats,” she said. “Ohio and Pennsylvania have strict boat laws, and they haven’t seen a decline in boating or people buying boats.”
Gina Lieneck says that anyone opposed to mandatory boater education needs to take a hard look in the dashboard reflection and think about what’s really important in life.
“It’s frustrating to me that people say they don’t want to sit through an eight-hour class,” she says. “I had to wait a month to bury my daughter because my husband and I were both critically injured, and then I had to sit through her funeral. You have to sit through an eight-hour class, and you only have to do it once. Just do it.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue.