Experts debate boating safety, capacity limits
The debate over requiring boating safety courses and setting capacity limits for larger craft has intensified in the aftermath of the July Fourth accident in Oyster Bay a year ago in which three children drowned.
With the number of boating accidents and fatalities in the state remaining stable last year, safety experts differ over what kind of regulations would make local waters safer.
And while the groups and trade associations favor tougher boating-while-intoxicated laws, the State Legislature did not act on that in the session that just ended even though it did adopt a boating education requirement.
The Coast Guard's recently released 2012 accident data shows that 197 boating accidents were reported in New York State, including 21 fatal ones in which 27 people died. There were also 89 accidents with 127 nonfatal injuries.
While the number of accidents in each of the past five years has ranged from 211 to 148, the number of fatal accidents has stayed fairly stable, from 17 in 2008 to 21 last year, with a high of 25 in 2011.
The number of deaths in those fatal accidents has ranged from 24 in 2008 to 27 last year, which was down from 28 the previous year. Since 2003, when there were 34 deaths in New York, to last year, totals have fallen to as low as 14.
Brian Kempf, boating administrator for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said the accident and fatality rates "are pretty much plateaued, and that's pretty much a national trend."
The numbers of alcohol-related accidents in New York have also remained static, with about 120 arrests per year for BWI, he said.
One big change is growing sales in the Northeast of paddle craft, from kayaks to paddle boards. "What we've seen correspondingly in the accident data is a fairly good percentage of the fatalities each year -- about a third -- are occurring on that type of watercraft," Kempf said.
Most safety organizations support a mandatory education law, even more vocally since the Kandi Won capsized and sank in Oyster Bay on July 4, 2012. But most of the groups advocate tough legislation like the Suffolk law passed last fall and scheduled to take effect in November. It would require all adult operators of powerboats to pass a safety course.
They are not satisfied with a state law, passed two weeks ago and awaiting action by the governor, that would supersede the county law and require only those born after 1996 to take a course. It would take decades to cover most boaters, they point out.
"All it did was knock out the Suffolk County law and take us back to square one," Huntington senior harbormaster Harry Acker said.
State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), chairman of the Transportation Committee, described the bill that passed as "a step in the right direction." He plans to try for a tougher bill next year.
Chris Squeri, president of the Empire State Marine Trades Association, opposes mandatory education but favors tougher BWI laws. He said the owner and the operator of the Kandi Won both had taken safety courses so the new Suffolk or state law would not have made a difference in that case, which did not involve accusations of boating while intoxicated.
"Almost 50 percent of the accidents every year occur on nonmotorized vessels -- canoes, kayaks, rowboats -- that are not registered" Squeri said, so their owners would not be covered by the course requirement. "None of the legislation that has been introduced or has been passed addresses that issue."
Meanwhile, the findings released last week by the Nassau County district attorney's office that overcrowding was the primary cause of the Oyster Bay accident has stepped up pressure for the industry or Coast Guard to set capacity limits for larger recreational boats such as the 34-foot Silverton that had 27 aboard.
Last fall, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill to require the Coast Guard to set capacity limits for boats larger than 20 feet, the current federal threshold. The bill is still in committee.
After the Oyster Bay accident, the American Boat and Yacht Council, the industry association that sets capacity ratings followed voluntarily by most manufacturers, considered setting limits on larger pleasure craft. It researched Coast Guard accident data back several decades and found "there were not enough accidents to make a wholesale stability standard" for boats larger than the 26-foot cutoff now used by the organization, president John Adey said.
But Adey said that at the urging of some naval architects and Paul Gaines, whose daughter died on the Kandi Won, the council is likely to institute capacity ratings for the flying bridges on cabin cruisers in the next year. "We believe that is the option that will make the biggest impact," he said.
The four adults and three children on the Kandi Won's flying bridge were a major cause of its instability, according to naval architects.
Adey said the flying bridge capacity limits could also be applied retroactively to older models like the 1984 Silverton involved in the Oyster Bay accident. The association has never done a retroactive standard before.
James Mercante, attorney for Kandi Won owner Kevin Treanor, said, "This accident highlights that boating capacity laws are needed."
Said Squeri: "The capacity issue has not really been addressed and it needs to be if unfortunately we can't utilize common sense."
Trends in boating accidents
- The 2012 fatality rate was 5.4 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. That's a 12.9 percent drop from the 2011 rate of 6.2 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.
- Overall, the number of accidents in 2012 decreased 1.6 percent compared with 2011.
- Almost 71 percent of all fatal boating accident victims drowned; of those, almost 85 percent were not reported as wearing a life jacket.
- Seven out of every 10 boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length.
- Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, machinery failure and excessive speed rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.
- Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, so listed in 17 percent of deaths.
Source: U.S. Coast Guard