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Editorial: For safety, toughen New York boating laws

Coast Guard Officers perform a safety check on

Coast Guard Officers perform a safety check on a boat near the Jones Beach Inlet neat Freeport, NY (May 27, 2013) Credit: Ed Betz

New York State is buoyed by its waterways: The Atlantic Ocean, Long Island Sound, Hudson River, Peconic Bay and miles of lakes, rivers and inlets are within reach for just about any type of speedboat, motorboat, fishing boat or sailboat.

We enjoy our coastal living and its vibrant boating culture. Yet despite the best efforts of most seafarers, an afternoon in the sun or evening under the stars can turn tragic faster than a captain tying a bowline knot.

Several bills pending in the State Legislature could steer us into safer waters.

There were 197 boat accidents in New York last year, causing more than $4.7 million in damage. In fact, only two other states -- California and Florida -- had more accidents last year, and only four states had more deaths on the water. In 2012 there were 27 deaths in New York and 651 across the country, according to the Coast Guard. Many accidents are a result of inexperience. Most are preventable.

The Coast Guard attributed 86 percent of boating fatalities nationally last year to operators who hadn't taken a safety course. New York doesn't require its boaters to have even the most basic certification from the Coast Guard or U.S. Power Squadrons to operate a motorized craft.

While many experienced boaters know the dangers of fog, currents, tides or looming clouds (and may have taken their share of courses), beginners don't have to show they understand rudiments of safety -- such as adhering to passenger limits, using life jackets or understanding the adverse effects of alcohol when hot sun and bobbing waves are mixed with open waters.

New York must tighten its rules: It needs tougher "boating while intoxicated" laws, stringent enforcement and BWI checks by police, and certification required by law, particularly for less experienced, and often younger, operators. As it stands, the state doesn't require people 18 or older to demonstrate any competency to operate a boat (the law does require certification for those ages 10-17 who aren't with an adult).

The state should join its neighbors in New Jersey, Connecticut and dozens of other states that require certification for people operating motorized boats. And anyone operating under the influence should know they not only jeopardize their safety, but face steep penalties and repercussions.

Several bills floating around in the State Legislature would require certification. While they vary, each includes a public awareness component and would be phased in over time. But the important take-away is that novices need instruction and awareness. Even experienced boaters could use a refresher -- or at least be required to pass a certification test free of any classes.

Common sense, experience and an understanding of the complexities of the water are essential for any pleasure cruiser -- and many boaters, including those who have passed down the tradition for generations, know this. Tightening up regulations would go a long way toward making our waters safer for all.