Gaps in Data Bring into Question Enforcement of Boating Safety Law


ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 18, 2008)—Maryland was among the first states that attempted to combat a growing number of boating accidents by mandating a boater safety education law in 1988, but today it's not clear how strictly that law is being enforced.

The law states boat and personal watercraft operators born on or after July 1972 are required to obtain a boater safety education certificate.

But the Maryland Natural Resources Police's boating accident database shows the police failed to report the birth dates of 60 percent of vessel operators involved in boating accidents in 2007.

"If birthdays aren't recorded, then tickets can't be issued when they should be, at least not to people who are getting into these accidents," said Maryland Natural Resources Police Lt. David Gough.

The average fine for not possessing a boating safety certification card is $25, but fines vary among counties, officers said.

Despite the high number of unrecorded birth dates, it's unclear whether the missing information is affecting boating accidents overall. The total number of boating accidents in the state fluctuated from about 200 in 2005 down to 160 in 2006 and back to 200 in 2007.

To obtain safety certification, vessel operators are required to attend an eight-hour safety course or pass an equivalency examination. The course can be completed in person at locations like community colleges, or online.

Police said they can't pull a boater over specifically to see proof of a certification card. However, if a boater is stopped for another infraction, such as operating a vessel without working lights, the boater may be asked to show certification.

Gough, a commander of records and policy for the Natural Resources Police, said the data gaps might be attributed to staffing issues and a subsequent lack of training for officers.

After a merger with the Maryland Rangers in 2005, when both groups were already short-staffed, the Natural Resources Police saw its numbers cut nearly in half. Cross-training rangers and police with skills for both positions may have contributed to less thorough accident reporting, said Gough.

In 2005, the birth dates of 13 percent of vessel operators involved in boating accidents weren't recorded. That number spiked to 36 percent in 2006 and 60 percent in 2007.

Each year the Maryland Natural Resources Police is required to compile a database of boating accidents, including information ranging from types of accidents to operators' alcoholic intake and boating safety education. That information is reported to the U.S. Coast Guard.

But if the information reported isn't complete, there's isn't much the Coast Guard does to change that.

"We usually ask the states to report as much information as they're able to gather," said Susan Tomczuk, a statistician for the U.S. Coast Guard. "So unfortunately, if they're not able to obtain that information, there's not much that we can do."

The Coast Guard is primarily concerned with the types of accidents that occur and their causes rather than the execution of individual state laws, said Tomczuk.

Some boating safety experts said the law enforcement issue could be easily eliminated by requiring all boaters in Maryland to be certified.

Since Maryland passed its law, a number of other states, including Connecticut and New Jersey, have enforced much stricter standards mandating safety education for all boaters, said Chris Edmonston, vice president of BoatU.S., a national boat owner organization.

Edmonston said sometimes when a state implements a blanket boating safety requirement prices for classes can skyrocket, discouraging people from becoming boat operators.

"The worst thing that could happen is instead of educating people you run them out of boating. That's one thing the boating industry doesn't want to do," said Edmonston. "I don't think [the Department of Natural Resources] wants to do that because that's a big part of their revenue."

Colleen Kidwell, an Annapolis resident who's been boating for 40 years, took the safety class even though it wasn't required for her age. She said, regardless of the law, she wished all boaters would take the course.

"You don't know how much you don't know until you take the course, just simple things like boat markers and how traffic should flow," said Kidwell. "I think it should be mandatory for everyone"

The Natural Resources Police department doesn't expect to see a change any time soon, especially because the current law will eventually cover all boaters.

"When that law was passed it was decided that more than likely if a boater is of a certain age, they're going to have sufficient skills to operate a boat safely on the water," said Gough. "Our legislature is really kind of tough on impacting people's recreational time."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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