Bill on boating safety courses almost law

A Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau police boat A Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau police boat cuts through the water as it operates in the Great South Bay. (July 1, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/ Thomas A. Ferrara

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After a summer of tragedies on Long Island waterways, the Suffolk County Legislature has unanimously passed a bill requiring county boaters to take a safety course, or risk hefty fines and even jail time.

The legislation, sponsored by Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills), applies only to boats registered in Suffolk and would be enforced by maritime law enforcement. The bill, passed Thursday, is expected to be signed into law this week by County Executive Steve Bellone.

Stern began working on the legislation years ago but momentum built quickly this summer after a cabin cruiser capsized on July Fourth in Oyster Bay, killing three children.

"There have been too many tragedies over too many years," Stern said. "You can't just push the throttle forward and think you have the water to yourself. There are rules to the road."

The bill would require boaters to pass an approved safety class before taking their vessel out onto Suffolk waterways, and to possess and display their course certificate at all times.

Free boating safety courses, typically lasting a few hours, are offered by the Coast Guard, Red Cross and other nonprofit groups, Stern said.

The law would not go into effect for one year, giving boaters a chance to take the course. After that, anyone caught operating a boat without a safety certificate would face a $250 fine for the first offense, $500 for the second, and $1,000 and up to a year in jail for a third.

"This will help save people's lives," said Gina Lieneck, whose daughter, Brianna, 11, was killed in a 2005 collision on Great South Bay. "There are too many inexperienced boaters out there who don't know what they are doing."

Lieneck, who was injured in the crash, said the man who struck her family's vessel was lost and did not know how to use the maritime radio or the safety flares on board.

Law enforcement agencies, such as the Suffolk Police Department Marine Bureau and various bay constables, would enforce the measure, typically during traffic stops for other infractions, Stern said.

The law would not apply to boats registered in Nassau, where there is no such requirement. State legislation mandating boater safety courses are in place in New Jersey and Connecticut. Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick) recently introduced a similar measure in the State Legislature.

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