By Steph Strickland
Massachusetts, which had 89 boating accidents and 5 fatalities in 2015, lags in strict boating regulations, such as rules on alcohol consumption, boater education, and lifejacket requirements that experts say could save lives.
Currently, licensing regulations are not in place for any motor boat operator over the age of 16. People can operate boats in the state of Massachusetts as young as 12 with experience in a boating safety course, and no adult supervision is necessary.
Captain David Cox, chairman of the Massachusetts Bay Harbor Safety Committee and an experienced boater, said anyone 16 or older “could go on Craig’s list tomorrow, put down two or three thousand dollars, go out on the Boston Harbor, without five minutes of instruction and you’re allowed to boat.”
If the state would require both adults and children to get boating license and take safety training “there would most likely be a decrease in accidents and ultimately fatalities, “said Ron Walsh, member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and a private boating class instructor.
While dealing with boaters with no training, officers also tend to see evidence of drunk boating on the waters. Unlike other laws that restrict drinking in automobiles, booze is not restricted aboard boats.
The mindset of drinking cold beers on a boat has been around for decades and people plead, “freedom of the seas,” when is comes to drinking while boating said Walsh.
However, law enforcement continues to punish boaters with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher. John Girvalakis, detective lieutenant for Massachusetts Environmental Police, said that the EPA makes about 10 drunk boating arrests annually between May and October.
Getting a Boater Under the Influence-BUI- conviction could result in fines, imprisonment, and/or loss of motor vehicle licenses, due to the danger boating under the influence can pose. Walsh said the motions of a boat rocking on the water can even enhance the effects of alcohol.
Many, including Walsh and other experts, have suggested that a change in the rule regarding alcohol on boats would reduce the number of people boating under the influence. Currently, anyone can consume alcohol on boats, as long as the operator is not legally drunk.
“Open container” laws exist in some states, such as Texas, which completely prohibit the consumption of alcohol in boating vessels. These laws have created stricter regulations that work to limit accidents and fatalities. While the issue of alcohol is prominent, some experts say issues regarding education about simple boating rules are even more substantial.
According to Walsh the most prominent causes of accidents were operator error and inattention. “People just do not know the rules of the road” said Walsh, who teaches these rules in a private boater education course that he runs.
Girvalakis said another more common infraction is an inadequate number of lifejackets on a vessel. According to the US Coast Guard eight out of ten people who drown are not wearing life jackets. However, federal law only requires boaters 12 and younger to wear lifejackets, but each vessel should have enough lifejackets for every person.
A few states have adopted laws that require all passengers to wear vests, and the numbers of fatalities have dropped significantly, according to Bill Gossard, a long-time boating accident investigator for the for the National Transportation Safety Board.
In many northern areas, including Massachusetts, cold water shock causes deaths that could’ve easily been avoided if more safety precautions were taken. Of the drowning victims “over 43 percent were only six feet away from safety,” said Walsh.
The David Hansen Act, a bill meant to increase Massachusetts requirements for operation of a boating vessel, has been sent to the Massachusetts legislature numerous times, however, it has yet to be passed. According to the David Hansen Act and its supporters, when legislatures heighten these types of regulations, there is the potential to make states a safer place.
Brianne Dent, a sailboat operator in the Boston Harbor, explained how the rules of boating are simple and concrete, yet people tend to break them subconsciously. In the same way people practice ‘defensive driving’, the idea of ‘defensive boating’ has become necessary for boaters to avoid commonplace accidents. Dent said “At this point I’ve learned to pretty much avoid everyone.”