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Does Education Equal Safety?

March 2006
The normally conservative state of Alabama is one of the last places one would expect to find radical change. But back in 1994, after a summer in which three youngsters were killed in two different boating accidents, a rapid-fire campaign was launched by a state official who declared it was time "to get the idiots off the water."

The emotion-laced campaign tactics worked. Before boating groups could even review it, a law was approved that gave Alabama the distinction of being the first in the nation to begin licensing boat operators much the same way automobile drivers are regulated — with a multiple choice test, a fee and a license card that could be revoked or suspended. The other "radical" element of the new law was its rapid implementation. Until then, virtually all state education laws featured an extensive phase-in period, usually by date of birth.

Alabama set a compliance date of 1999 — allowing only five years to bring some half-million boaters under age 40 into a new program. Over 560,000 Alabamans have been licensed and more than 30,000 are added to the rolls each year.

But are Alabama's waters any safer? A comparison of state accident statistics seem to indicate that the law has had an impact.

"What I can say, in a non-scientific review of state-by-state fatalities, is that those states with a quick phase-in are showing a quick and maintained reduction in fatalities," said Jeff Hoedt, director of the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety. He pointed to jurisdictions with a track record and compared accident rates five years before and five years after a rapid phase-in law took effect in Connecticut and Alabama.

In 1994, the year of the Alabama law's passage, fatalities totaled 76. Comparing five-year averages of fatalities, 1994-1998 and 1999-2003, Alabama's fatalities have dropped 41% between the two periods. Alabama reached an all-time low of 11 fatalities in 2000 and it has hovered in the teens since, including 15 in 2005.

"We saw a marked change the first year," said Capt. Bob Huffaker, director of operations for the Alabama Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources who worked on the rollout of the new law throughout the 1990s. "We used to average fatalities per year in the mid-30s and now they're in the teens. We're getting good compliance from the boating public."

Since the age group involved in the largest number of fatalities each year is 35-50-year olds, Hoedt also believes the faster phase-in programs are reaching these boaters sooner.

Also important to note: nationally, boating fatalities have been steadily dropping since figures were first kept in the 1970s. In 2004, they reached a record low of 676 nationwide, despite continual increases in the number of registered boats.

What Did They Do?
While everyone born before April 1954 is exempt from taking a class or a test, every operator of a motorboat or personal watercraft over the age of 12 in Alabama must get a vessel operator endorsement on their driver's license. To get the endorsement, everyone born after 1954 must have a certificate showing they took an accredited boating safety class and passed the course test, or passed a 25-question test given by the motor vehicle license office in their county.

"Ninety-five percent of the boaters took the state-taught course. We had classes with 300 people in them," Huffaker recalled of the late 1990s, prior to the availability of online courses on the Internet. "Public awareness was very evident in the 1997-1999 time frame when we were inundated by people wanting to get into a boating safety class."

The 1994 law also mandated that boating safety be taught to high school students who signed up for a driver's ed class, whether they were boaters or not. Successfully completing the high school course gave students a boating class certificate they could bring in when they applied for a driver's license.

Alabama driver's licenses carry a "V" for vessel operators. Both auto and boat operation have point systems for violations but they are separate. The vessel endorsement can be revoked or suspended for boating violations but this would not cost a driver their driver's license, and vice versa. Huffaker said the most common cause for an automatic 90-day suspension is boating while intoxicated.

While the driver's license must be renewed every four years, the boating endorsement is automatically renewed without any more course or test requirements.

"On the whole, it's worked out really well," Huffaker said. "Alabama is no doubt a safer boating environment than it was before."

The experience with mandatory education in Connecticut has been similar, although certification with a boating course is not tied to a driver's license. The quick phase-in began in 1993 with operators under 25 and by 1997 covered everyone who operates a motorized boat or sailboat 19.5 feet or larger. There was one group "grandfathered" in, however: those who owned a registered boat between 1987 and 1992.

Ironically, it was not a tragic accident that was the impetus for mandatory education in Connecticut, said boating chief Eleanor Mariani. The state legislature was proposing to ban all personal watercraft in the state. Instead, a requirement of a course or a 50-question test for boat and PWC operators became law.

"It certainly seems that our (fatality) numbers are staying lower and we don't see anything else that would have caused this," Mariani said. Connecticut has low fatalities but its five-year average before the new law was eight per year and in five years since the law the average dropped to four per year.

"I'm pretty pleased. I think we're making a dent in what would normally be higher numbers," she added. Some 250,000 boaters are certified in Connecticut.

Fast Phase-In in Oregon
Meanwhile, 2,000 miles west on the other side of the political divide, the Oregon legislature gave its boating safety office 10 years to launch a new education program covering all motorboat operators. It's now in the fourth year of a seven-year phase-in. (The first three years were used to set up the program, develop the courses and begin alerting the public.) The requirement to take a course or pass a test now reaches boaters 45 and younger and by the end of 2006 it will cover operators 50 and younger. Compliance is hovering above 80%, according to Marty Law, the education director for Oregon State Marine Board.

In the five years prior to the program, Oregon averaged 16 fatalities a year; in the three years since the requirement began the average has been 13 but it's likely too soon to see any real trend.

"Keep in mind that mandatory education only deals with people in motorboats. Six of our 15 fatalities last year were in canoes, kayaks, rafts and drift boats, boaters who are not required to take a course. We still have to count those boating fatalities," says Law. "We've seen a little bit of improvement but there are so many factors involved such as the economy, the weather, even fishing. If they close the salmon season early that means we have thousands fewer boaters crossing the river bars."

What About the Long Run?
At the opposite end of the implementation schedule is Maryland, the first state in the country to pass mandatory education for all boaters born after 1972. Beginning in 1988, the law has slowly ratcheted up in age groups and now, some 18 years later, is only encompassing 33- and 34-year-olds. Consequently, judging the effectiveness of Maryland's law may be premature since the first of the core group of 35- to 50-year-olds who comprise the largest block of boaters involved in accidents have yet to be certified.

Like Alabama, Maryland's law was born out of a tragic and highly publicized boating accident that killed the son of film director Francis Ford Coppola. The phase-in period was designed to not overload the classroom boating courses taught mainly by volunteers, as well as understaffed state boating offices.

But after nearly two decades Maryland has not shown any sustained decreases in boating fatalities since the law took effect. Its five-year average of fatalities per year from 1995-99 was 11 and from 2000-2004 it was actually higher at 14.4.

"If you were going to your state legislators to convince them that there is a real problem that needs to be addressed, how does it sound to then say, 'Don't worry, the waters will be a lot safer in 20 or 30 years,'" said Hoedt. "We've seen the statistical results of the quick phase-in that we have not seen in the long phase-in states."

In January, New Jersey became the latest state to require boating education on a stepped-up schedule; it will be phased in by age group through June 2009.

A New Federal Law? Based in part on these results and with the support of the National Boating Safety Advisory Council, the U.S. Coast Guard is drafting a legislative proposal to mandate education on a national scale.

Whether Congress will give the Coast Guard the authority to do so is an open question. What is certain is that the debate on a national law has only just begun.

By Elaine Dickinson

For a state-by-state list of education requirements, visit and select "State Educational Requirements".

©BoatUS Magazine, March 2006