By ARIEL ZIRULNICK, News21/CNS
LAKE PLEASANT, Ariz. (November 24, 2010)Seventeen years ago federal officials urged all states to require boater education courses and life jackets for children.
Today, 13 states still don't require boaters to learn how to drive a boat before they hit the water. And two states—Virginia and Wisconsin—don't require children to wear life jackets on boats despite more than a decade of pressure from the nation's top transportation safety agency.
In 2008 there were more than 4,700 recreational boating accidents leading to 709 fatalities in the U.S., according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics. Only highways claimed more lives than the nation's waterways.
"It's a very serious issue and it's one we can impact," said Bill Gossard, NTSB's recreational boating coordinator. "We have a better shot saving lives here than other places."
Of the 6,347 boats involved in recreational boating accidents recorded by the Coast Guard in 2008, more than 2,700, or 43 percent, involved one or more operators with no formal boater education. That number jumps to 79 percent for accidents with fatalities.
Of the 709 people who died in 2008, 610 of them were not wearing life jackets; 459 of them drowned.
The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended in 1993 that all states require boat operators to take a boater education course and that children wear life jackets while on board. That recommendation was bumped to the board's "Most Wanted" list in 1994, making it one of the nation's top transportation safety priorities, yet it's still not resolved.
Safety advocates say they have a hard time getting state legislators and the general public to take boating dangers seriously.
They can tell plenty of sobering stories about deaths that could have been avoided with properly worn life jackets or uneducated boaters who could have avoided accidents if only they knew how.
But, unlike airline accidents that can take many lives at one time, boating accidents tend to be singular tragedies. And that makes it difficult to draw attention to the problem and persuade legislators to act, said Steve Blackstone, the state and local liaison coordinator for the NTSB.
In a 2002 letter to the NTSB explaining why Minnesota didn't at the time have a life jacket requirement for children, a state boating safety official wrote "only two children have died in boating accidents in Minnesota in the past 10 years. ... It will be difficult for the Legislature to act on the board's recommendation with this accident history."
When Bruce Dungan, chairman and founder of the Virginia Safe Boating Alliance, spoke before the Virginia House of Delegates this year, a lawmaker asked him to name one child who had drowned because he wasn't wearing a life jacket.
"I said, 'That's not the right question. How many did not drown because they were wearing a life jacket?,'" Dungan said. "We don't have statistics on that. You don't track the close calls. You don't hear about those. We require seat belts. We have child seats for children. Guys, we're talking about saving lives here."
Arkansas officials decided to take action only after a 1994 accident killed seven people, five of them children, the NTSB's Gossard said.
"It takes a very bad accident to get people motivated on the issue," he said.
Other states resist boating safety measures because of a belief that people have the right to make their own decisions, even if that involves a certain degree of risk.
"How much should it be regulated and how should we do that so that government doesn't become this onerous, burdensome detriment to a recreational activity?" asked Charlie Sledd, the boating law administrator for Virginia, one of the states that still doesn't require children to wear life jackets.
"How much government control, government intrusion, becomes necessary in that?"
On a sunny Saturday in June, Lake Pleasant near Phoenix was filled with boaters racing past each other, many of them going in opposite directions. They were ignoring a state law that requires boaters to go counterclockwise around the lake to avoid collisions.
Children without life jackets clambered around boats, another violation of Arizona law. Boaters ignored safety guidelines by diving into the water without bothering to put up a flag to alert others. Some boats had flags up even though there were no people in the water.
Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers patrolling the lake that day found one person who had anchored his boat off the back rather than the front. The boat could easily have been swamped by a wave.
Before the day ended, volunteers towed to shore two boaters whose engine had quit. The boat had no marine radio, and the boaters' cell phones didn't work. A family member who grew concerned when they didn't return asked the auxiliary boat to go look for them.
When the Coast Guard volunteers found them, they had been sitting in the uncovered boat for hours without drinking water. The only life jackets on board were ill fitting and in poor shape.
Most of the time boaters aren't willfully violating the law or purposefully doing something dangerous; they just don't know any better, said Cris McSparen, general manager of Scorpion Bay Marina on Lake Pleasant. He estimated that 70 percent of the people he rents boats to have little to no experience on the water.
He said the instructions boaters get before they go out usually are enough to keep them safe, but Gossard disagreed.
"If most of those people took an exam on boater education, most of them would flunk," Gossard said.
That's what happened in Alabama, where a boater's license has been required since 1995. Boaters have to pass an exam similar to the test for a driver's license.
Charley Grimsley, who was commissioner of Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources at the time, said people who had been boating for years failed the exam the first time they took it.
This summer, one of Grimsley's relatives set out to get her license. She did nothing to prepare for the exam, assuming that years of watching her father pilot a boat was enough.
Cindy Kominska of Tempe, Ariz., has become a vocal proponent of boater education requirements since a 1996 accident left her son Michael in a coma for four months.
Michael, who was 11 at the time, was riding a jet-ski on a lake near Phoenix when another jet-ski struck him and knocked him unconscious. Years later, he still faces cognitive disabilities. The right side of his body is too weak for him to walk normally.
The operator of the other jet-ski was a woman with no formal boater education (it is not required in Arizona). She was jumping other motorboats' wakes when she hit Michael.
A boater education class would have taught her to keep her distance from other jet skiers, especially when doing something risky like jumping wakes.
"If there's no law that requires you to have this certification, anybody and his brother can get on a jet-ski and do whatever he wants," Kominska said.
The current NTSB recommendation for education is actually a watered-down version of what the board wanted, Gossard said. The original recommendation asked states to pass laws that require boaters to take a test and get licensed, similar to what Alabama has in place.
But the board quickly realized it wouldn't get anywhere with that recommendation and downgraded it to a simple course for boat operators, Gossard said.
When the NTSB first made the recommendation for boater education in 1993, only 20 states required it. Today, that number is up to 37. The rest of the states continue to resist.
"Most of the push-back is not scientific or logical. It's just, 'Leave me alone; I want to have fun,'" said Paul Newman, the recreational boating safety program manager for the 11th Coast Guard District, based in San Diego. "In certain states, that still carries a lot of weight. They feel like that's intruding too much on their personal lives."
Some boaters say they don't need a class because they already know how to drive a car. But Newman and other safety advocates say the rules on the water—such as staying on the right side of a channel—are unique to the water and not always intuitive.
"No one would think about driving an automobile without a driver's license. No state would think of authorizing that," he said.
Still, it will be at least five more years before boating statistics reflect anything conclusive about the impact of a boater education requirement on frequency of accidents, Gossard said. That's because it is impossible to separate the impact of boater education on accident and fatality rates from the impact of two other developments in recreational boating.
In 2000, the Coast Guard raised the threshold for reporting a boating accident from $500 to $2,000, resulting in a huge decline in the number of accidents reported. Around the same time, boating under the influence laws that passed in the 1980s and 1990s began taking effect, prompting an actual decline in accidents.
The average number of recreational boating accidents each year between 1996 and 2000 was 7,961, but the average for 2004 to 2008 was only 4,964.
Alabama and Connecticut are the only two states where accident numbers can be tied specifically to boater education. All others states are grandfathering their laws, meaning it will be decades before all their boaters have to comply with an education requirement.
Alabama requires a license and Connecticut requires that boaters take a class.
The number of fatal accidents in Alabama declined by 25 percent between 1995 and 2005 after the law took effect, according to a Coast Guard study. In Connecticut, fatal accidents declined by 34 percent.
For the U.S. as whole, fatal accident rates declined by 12 percent over the same period.
Legislators in Wisconsin and Virginia have been trying for years to pass laws requiring life jackets for children on boats.
In Virginia, the law has failed to advance at least seven times, Dungan said. Parents objected because they say they're the best judges of how well their children can swim and they don't like being told how to protect their children, he said.
"They think they can swim to safety. I hear that all the time," Gossard said.
However, research endorsed by the American Pediatric Association, the Coast Guard, the NTSB and other organizations shows that children under 13 are less capable of surviving without a life jacket.
Before age 7, children lack the motor skills needed to respond quickly and adequately in an emergency, and finding a life jacket on board and putting it on correctly is beyond their capability, said Susan Balisteri, the author of the study. Before 13, she said, they struggle to think through the steps they need to stay alive.
In 2002, the Coast Guard began mandating that children under 13 wear life jackets. The Coast Guard regulation applies on waterways under federal jurisdiction, mostly those whose shores touch more than one state. For Virginia, where most boating occurs on federal waters, that means a state law would not change much.
Still, Virginia is unlikely to pass a life jacket law for children any time soon.
There were "a lot of political chips called in" in 2007, when Virginia managed to pass a mandatory boater education law, Dungan said, and boating safety advocates were asked to hold off on life jacket legislation.
Goddard and Newman are confident, however, that the reticence won't last forever. It wasn't that long ago that driving drunk was considered a personal choice that shouldn't be regulated. Forty years ago, no state had a mandatory life jacket law.
"Society gradually gets it," Newman said.
In 1994, Alabama passed a recreational boating law that 15 years later is still the strictest in the country. All boaters must have a license, which they can only get by passing a boating exam. No other state requires a license.
"In Alabama, before we passed the law, the water was kind of the last bastion of total lawlessness where you can kill without consequences," said Grimsley, the former commissioner of the state agency that oversees boating.
It took two tragedies and three children dying to change that.
In May 1993, 4-year-old Lauren Archer was killed when a boater ran into the boat she was on with her parents. Her parents survived, but Lauren did not.
That August, 9-year-old Ashley Roberson and her 5-year-old sister Katy were killed in a similar accident. The impact split the Roberson's boat almost in two, Grimsley said.
The two accidents convinced Grimsley that something had to be done. He used part of his salary to create and distribute a video about the accidents and the need for stronger boating laws. The video shows photos of the three children at birthday parties and family gatherings and includes emotional testimonies from parents and friends of the girls. Grimsley sent a copy to every member of the Alabama Legislature in December 1993, just before Christmas.
"These weren't statistics that were dying on the water. These were children. These were human beings," he said.
The next spring, the parents of the children filmed a series of TV commercials that appeared across the state. The commercials prompted a flood of letters—about 40,000 of them—to state legislators.
But convincing legislators was only part of the battle. Grimsley and other advocates of the law fought the boating industry for months. The industry viewed every person who failed the test as one fewer person who would buy a boat, Grimsley said.
A boating education requirement like the one the NTSB recommends would have been easier to pass, but Grimsley didn't think it went far enough. Without a license, there's no way to punish boaters for breaking the law.
Grimsley said he still considers the law one of the most important things he's done in his life.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Those kids would be in the water saying, 'Help me! Help me!' I would just sit there and cry. I felt responsible," he said. "There's not a day that I won't think about it."
News21 is a cooperative project among 12 research universities, including the University of Maryland, College Park designed to experiment with new forms of investigative and in-depth reporting. It is funded by the Carnegie Corp. and Knight Foundation.