ALBANY — The New York State Assembly approved a bill Tuesday to require operators of the more than 400,000 motorized boats around the state to take a safety course, a measure driven by a fatal crash off Fire Island more than 14 years ago.
The Assembly passed the bill — called “Brianna’s Law” for 11-year-old Brianna Lieneck, who died in the 2005 crash — overwhelmingly, 96-1. The Senate did the same three weeks ago, meaning the bill now rests with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign or veto. Cuomo’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
The legislation would require any boat operator older than 10 to have taken a boating safety course. Current law requires safety courses just for those born after May 1, 1996. Such safety courses usually result in a certificate. Those who have an existing certificate from a prior course are already deemed qualified. The state will have to determine which courses meet the appropriate safety standards.
As the roll call vote in the State Assembly began Tuesday afternoon, Brianna’s mother, Gina Lieneck, said she went numb.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. I was totally numb,” Lieneck, a Deer Park resident, said when asked what was going through her mind at the moment. She was sitting in the back of the chamber watching the votes recorded on an electronic tally board. Her voice catching just a little, she added: “It’s one of the happiest days of my life.”
It was preceded by great tragedy. The Lienecks were headed home from Fire Island under a full moon around 9 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2005, when their boat was struck by a heavier vessel at a 90-degree angle. The larger boat went over the Lieneck’s, according to law enforcement. Gina, husband Frank and daughter Danyelle all were seriously injured but recovered, as did a teenage family friend. Brianna, nicknamed “Breezy” by her schoolmates, died.
Charges of boating while intoxicated initially were levied against the operator of the other vessel but later were dropped. From there, Gina moved into advocacy.
The vote Tuesday marked the end of a 16-month stretch of traveling to Albany, two or more times a week when the Legislature was in session, to lobby for the bill and iron out provisions with lawmakers. That followed a successful campaign to get Suffolk County lawmakers to approve a similar local law. She said she’s hopeful the statewide measure, if it becomes law, will have a “big impact.”
Said Lieneck: “I’m so happy, I can’t believe it.”
Detractors of the statewide measure have said it would be largely unenforceable and have little impact. They also point out the majority of boating fatalities annually documented by New York occur with canoes, kayaks and other nonmotorized vessels.
Supporters say it will have an impact, once boaters are educated about the requirement.
“It’s going to be good for them — and everybody else,” Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Wheatley Heights), the Assembly sponsor of the bill, said. “Our waterways will be safer as a result of this.”
“It’s long overdue and it’s necessary,” added Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head), a co-sponsor. “We have about 100,000 boats registered between Nassau and Suffolk counties. (Some operators) have no idea what they’re doing.”
The outcome of the vote wasn’t in doubt; the bill sailed through, 96-1. Almost no bill ever reaches the Senate or Assembly floor without majority support — the work is in lining up the votes and countering opposition beforehand.
In this case, lawmakers tweaked the original version to allow for the use of online safety courses as an alternative to mandating “in-person” courses. They included a provision to allow a five-year phase-in of the requirement predicated on the operator’s age, according to bill documents. Online course costs run about $30, legislators said. Fines for a first offense begin at $100, Jean-Pierre said.
Montesano said they also had to counter the idea that it would depress boat sales by arguing it would be akin to requiring driver’s licenses for motor vehicle operators.
“Requiring a driver’s license hasn’t stopped people from buying cars,” the Republican said.
Last year, the Republican-led Senate blocked the bill. Following the Democrats’ takeover of the Senate in last year’s elections, the bill easily won approval, 40-18, sponsored by Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford). Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who represents the Lieneck’s community, was the original sponsor.
Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) called the bill “toothless.”
“I’m afraid it’s going to give us a false sense of security,” Tedisco said during the Senate debate.
The New York Marine Trades Association has remained opposed to the measure, according to Executive Director Chris Squeri, who runs a Freeport marina.
“We are opposed because it doesn’t include everyone,” Squeri said. He noted the bulk of fatalities listed in the state Parks Department’s 2017 and 2018 boating safety report were linked to nonmotorized vessels. And he said the state already has “boating while intoxicated” laws to address some of the other safety issues.
“It’s just not as effective as it could have been,” he said, “and it’s not going to solve the problems.”