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Dobie: Progress on boating safety, but not enough

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 finally has a new boating safety law. Some of its proponents, in full self-congratulatory mode, described the legislation as “landmark” and praised it as guaranteeing that all New York boaters will be properly educated in how to safely handle their vessels.

Alas, it falls far short of that.

At best, it’s a step in the right direction — a small step.

Broadly sketched, the law — which was signed last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and takes effect next May — requires power boat operators to complete an eight-hour course to obtain a boating safety certificate. But the only ones required to take the course are those born May 1, 1996 or after. In other words, 18-year-olds. It will take decades before the law has any significant impact.

There were other options — and other models. Suffolk County — in the wake of last year’s drowning deaths of three children on the evening of July Fourth when a cabin cruiser capsized in Oyster Bay — passed a law which required powerboat operators of all ages to take a safety course. That law was superseded by the state legislation. New Jersey and Connecticut have similarly-stringent requirements. State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick) had offered a tougher mandatory education bill that stalled in Albany in the face of complaints from upstate lake and river boaters. The State Legislature also did not move forward on legislation from Fuschillo that would have toughened penalties for boating-while-intoxicated.

Critics of the tougher proposals made some valid points. It is true that both the owner and the operator of the boat that capsized in Oyster Bay had taken safety courses so neither the new state law nor the one passed in Suffolk would have made a difference in that situation. Some critics pointed out that many experienced boaters who took safety classes years ago have no way to prove it. One possible solution: Give them an opt-out of sorts by allowing them to take a certification test.

The data cited by supporters of the tougher legislation are compelling: 27 people died in boating accidents in the state last year, 28 were killed in 2011.

The issue seems far from settled. Fuschillo says he might try again next year with his mandatory education bill.