Education, licensing make waterways safer

The majority of accidents occur on sunny days with unlimited visibility, calm winds and on smooth water. 

Say what you will about pesky personal watercraft (PWC) users, but something that benefits all of us has come from their perilous boating records.

It wasn't long ago when someone with no driving experience could legally power a boat over most waters in the country. Today, 37 states require boaters to be certified or licensed, up from 27 just four years ago, and other states are considering similar legislation.

These tighter laws were precipitated by an alarming number of PWC mishaps, and statistics bear that out. A sharp increase in collisions and fatalities in the mid-1990s coincided with an increase in PWC sales. During the peak years, many states reported that at least 40 percent of their accidents involved PWCs, even though those vessels accounted for fewer than 5 percent of the boats registered.

Subsequent legislation calling for mandatory boat safety education and driver experience among all user groups has made the waters safer.

Coast Guard statistics note fewer accidents and fatalities since 1998, when 8,061 accidents resulted in 815 deaths. In 2000, there were 7,740 accidents and 701 fatalities. The 2001 statistics won't be announced until late summer.

Education requirements vary from state to state, yet most demand that teenage-or-younger boaters successfully complete a certified boater education course before they can legally operate a powerboat. Virginia raised the minimum age requirement to operate a boat from 14 to 16, but allows 14- and 15-year-olds to drive a boat if they pass the boating course.

"PWCs were involved in 40 percent of our accidents, but now that's down to around 22 percent," says Charlie Shedd, Virginia's Boating Law Administrator. "It has made a huge difference."

Alabama, the first of four states to require licensed boaters, has seen similar improvements. In 1994, it passed a law requiring anyone born after April 28, 1954, be required to pass an exam before receiving a boat operator's certificate. Those old enough to drive vehicles have a "V" placed on their driver's licenses to indicate compliance. The law came under full enforcement in 1999.

"Our fatalities dropped 47 percent the first year, and we've had our lowest numbers ever since," says Capt. Bob Huffaker of the Alabama Natural Resources' Marine Police Division. "In 1998, we had 156 accidents, 32 fatalities and 86 injuries. In 2001, we had 104 accidents, 17 fatalities and 55 injuries. When you reduce fatalities from 32 to a number in the teens, you're doing something right."

Huffaker says Alabama will have 500,000 licensed boaters by the end of the year and a better-educated boating public because of it.

"It also gives us an additional enforcement tool," he adds. "If a person is cited for boating under the influence (BUI), we now can take that privilege away from them."

Indiana has similar restrictions. In 1996, it began requiring boaters to have an automobile driver's license when operating a boat with an outboard of 10 or more horsepower. If a person doesn't have a driver's license, he may take a boater education course and get an ID card from the license branch.

"It's our belief that a person with a driver's license is going to be more responsible and aware of the rules of the road," says Sam Purvis, Indiana's Boating Law Administrator. "The law also made people aware of the boating intoxication laws, which are the same as the laws for driving a vehicle while intoxicated, and the violations went down greatly."

By tying boating infractions to a driver's license, Hoosiers have more to lose than a stiff fine when breaking the law. Violators are issued "points" for each citation, and an accumulation of more than 17 points during a three-year period can cost them their driving privileges.

"It will cost you eight points for being intoxicated while operating a boat, and you could have your license suspended, so that makes people think twice before consuming alcoholic beverages on the water," says Purvis. "Losing weekend boating privileges is one thing, but the right to drive a car is another matter."

Enforcement officials say bass fishermen are among the safest of the user groups, although anglers often become victims. In 2000, only 6 percent of the boats involved in accidents were being used for fishing, yet 30 percent of the fatalities were fishing-related.

Many of those deaths could have been prevented if the victims had been wearing life jackets.

"Most tournament fishermen wear life jackets, at least when they're running from one spot to another," says Virginia's Shedd. "But when you look at the fatality statistics nationwide, at least 80 percent could have been avoided if the victims had been wearing life jackets."

Despite the increase in horsepower on boats, speed hasn't been the primary factor in boating accidents.

"In Virginia, our accidents are not horsepower-driven," adds Shedd. "They're operator-driven."

Coast Guard officials say that nearly 70 percent of accidents are caused by inattention, inexperience and reckless operation. About 84 percent of all fatalities occurred when the boat operator had not completed a boating safety course, and the majority involved boats measuring less than 16 feet.

And they occur on the nicest days of the year.

"Everyone thinks that most accidents are caused by bad weather and rough water, but that's not true," says Shedd. "Our reports show that the majority occur on sunny days with unlimited visibility, calm winds and on smooth water."