WASHINGTON – A mandatory Maryland boating safety course is apparently neither mandatory nor significantly promoting safety, according to an analysis of Coast Guard boating accident statistics.
Between 1997 and 2000, exactly half of the 246 boating operators who were involved in an accident and were supposed to have taken a required boating safety course had not done so, according to a Capital News Service analysis.
Looked at another way, at least one-third to as many as one-half of those who were involved in accidents were safety course graduates, from either the state safety course or an equivalent course.
The accident database showed that at least 36 percent of boaters born after July 1, 1972 — to whom the mandatory safety course applies — had taken the course. Four percent had an informal training course and it could not be determined if the remaining 9 percent had any boating education.
But the Coast Guard cautions that its data is by no means complete, since many boaters do not know they are required by law to file a boating accident report. A report must be filed if an accident results in loss of life; personal injury that requires medical attention beyond first aid; damage to either property or vessel that exceeds $500; or complete loss of the vessel.
The statistics came from the Coast Guard’s most recent Recreational Accident Report Database, from the year 2000. Capital News Service looked at the date of birth of Maryland boat operators who were involved in accidents and checked it against whether or not they had taken a boating education course.
In 1988, Maryland became the first state to require a either a free eight- hour boating safety course, or an equivalent course run by the Coast Guard, for any boat operator born after July 1, 1972. The aim was to gradually educate all new boaters in safety procedures in an attempt to reduce accidents.
In order to get the certification, boaters must attend a two-part, eight- hour course and pass a 50-question multiple-choice exam with at least a 70 percent score, said Anne Rogers, the state’s boating education coordinator.
The courses focus on general boating safety, navigation skills and equipment requirements. Many are offered throughout the summer at locations across the state to an estimated 8,000 boaters per year. Rogers added that an extra benefit of the course is some insurance agents will lower premiums upon completion of the course.
But she conceded that many young boaters seem to be ignoring the rule.
“It’s been a slow process getting the word out that this is a mandatory thing,” Rogers said.
But Maryland Natural Resources Police Lt. Col. Tammy Broll said she believes boaters are taking the course.
Broll, chief of field operations for the DNR Police, said some of those boaters that appear in the database as not being certified may be exempt from the rule, such as boating operators from different states, or those who are driving with somebody above the age restriction.
Police do not target boaters looking to check certification. But officers can ask for proof of course completion if a boater is pulled over for another infraction.
Maryland Natural Resources Police Capt. David Street said the law is not heavily enforced since boaters are only asked to show their course certification if they are stopped for another violation. It is then up to the officer to decide whether to issue a $50 ticket or give a verbal warning.
The data comes at a time when the number of boating accidents has only marginally declined in Maryland. But Street said that while overall accidents have dropped only slightly, there are more boats on the water now than ever before, which would mean a smaller percentage of boaters are having accidents.
In 2000, there were 208,186 boats registered in Maryland.
The Coast Guard credits better boating education for a national drop in boating fatalities over the last decade. There were 865 boating deaths in 1990, or 7.8 fatalities per 100,000 boats, but that number fell to 701 deaths in 2000, or 5.5 per 100,000 boats.
The national statistics also show that 84 percent of all boating fatalities occurred on boats whose operator had not completed a boating safety education course.
Rogers encouraged those concerned about boating safety to take the longer Coast Guard boating class, saying that the eight-hour state course, “doesn’t get into half of what people actually need.”