Maine Legislature Rejects (Again) Mandatory Boating Course
Good news for boaters. The legislature rejected a bill to require boaters to take a safety course and pass a test before taking to the water in their motor boats.
Although the House faced a very crowded agenda on the afternoon of June 7, they entertained a 45 minute debate over the boating course bill before killing it by a lopsided vote.
The legislature has rejected similar bills several times in the past. I remember one session when a high-powered national boating expert testified for a mandatory safety course bill.
When one legislator asked him what was the single most important thing we could do to improve boating safety, the expert said, “Require boaters to wear life jackets.”
The next question was obvious. Why were they advocating for a mandatory safety course, when the most important safety measure would be mandatory life jackets?
“We can’t get mandatory life jackets, politically,” he said in an amazing bit of candor. “So we’re going for this.”
For the record, in 2009 in this country, almost three-fourths of all fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those, 84 percent were not wearing life jackets.
And here’s another important fact. Alcohol use is the leading contributor in fatal boating accidents. It is already against the law to drive your boat in Maine while under the influence of alcohol.
Each year proponents of a mandatory boating course whittle their bill down to smaller and smaller groups of people. Initially everyone would have been forced to take a course. This year, their bill, LD 1375, required a boating safety course for “noncommercial motorboat users who cannot show proof of a motorboat registration in the last 3 years, either from the State or a jurisdiction outside of the State.”
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bruce MacDonald of Boothbay, could find only one cosponsor, Rep. Sharon Treat of Hallowell. MacDonald testified that he sponsored the bill at the request of Dwayne Lewis, long time operator of the swing bridge on Townsend Gut, the waterway between Boothbay Harbor and Southport Island.
MacDonald said Lewis told him, “You wouldn’t believe the scary things I see everyday as people come down the gut. People just don’t know what they are doing on the water.”
Edie Smith, Director of Information and Education at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, testified “neither for nor against” LD 1375. “The key issue for us is to encourage our young people to get out and enjoy the outdoors but be educated to how to use a boat safely when they do so,” said Smith, who brought DIF&W’s safety program director, Mike Sawyer, to the hearing to answer questions.
Smith informed the committee that her agency has plans to improve its existing boating safety programs, “by making them mandatory for the younger ages and providing increased access to educational programs by adding online curricula.”
“Our goal would be to require that all persons between the ages of 10 and 16 years old be under the direct supervision of an adult 18 years or older while operating a motorized watercraft,” testified Smith. “Once 16, that person would be mandated to take a certified boating safety course, either online or in a classroom setting in order to be able to operate a motorized watercraft alone.”
Currently, when operating a motorboat with more than 10 horsepower, a person under the age of 12 must be under the immediate supervision of a person located in the boat who is at least 16 years of age. Once a person reaches age 12, he or she can operate a motorized watercraft alone.
In addition, those under age 16 may not operate personal watercraft - that includes jet-skis. Between the 16 and 18 years of age, they may operate personal watercraft if they have successfully completed an approved education course or they are accompanied by someone 18 years of age or older.
Smith didn’t get much traction with the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, which gave LD 1375 an “ought-not-to-pass” recommendation. However, a few committee members supported an amended version of the bill that would have made the motorboat safety course requirement effective January 1, 2014 and apply the mandate only to those born after December 31, 2000. The amendment also required the course to be free.
On June 7, when this issue hit the House floor, the minority’s amendment was not offered. The majority “ought-not-to-pass” motion was offered, and we were off to the (boat) races.
Rep. MacDonald spoke 3 times, urging House members to reject the motion and support the minority amendment. Despite his earnest plea, opponents of a mandatory course showed him no mercy.
No more of these foolish laws,” huffed Rep. Paul Davis.
“Check the weather. Don’t drink too much. Use common sense,” were Rep. Jon McKane’s suggestions.
When they finally ran out of gas, the bill got a thumping, with 104 House members voting for the ought-not-to-pass motion, and 42 fighting on.
I have no doubt proponents of a mandatory boating course will be back again next session. But for now, the cry is “Boat On!”