ANNAPOLIS – Boaters who take an approved safety course are less likely to get into an accident than those without any safety training, according to a United States Coast guard database of Maryland boating mishaps.
Of the 183 people involved in a boating accident in the state in 2003, more than 60 percent had no boating education or their education was unreported. About 35 percent took a specified safety training course, and less than 2 percent reported taking an unspecified safety course.
In addition, boating accidents overall in Maryland declined from 2002-2003, reflecting a national trend, according to the databases.
Of the 198,395 registered boats in Maryland, reported accidents dropped about 9 percent from 2002-2003 and the number of fatal accidents dropped 28.5 percent during the same span. Boat registration increased by 383 during that time.
Nationally, the number of reported accidents dropped about 4.6 percent and the number of fatal accidents fell by about 6 percent. Those accidents resulted in 47 fewer deaths in 2003 than in 2002 nationally.
The declining number of accidents in Maryland is probably a result of the state’s mandatory education program, said Bill Gossard, recreational boating program coordinator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
The database contains statistics on recreational boats, including open motorboats, canoes, personal watercraft and sailboats. Commercial boats such as water taxis are not included in the report.
The operator of a vessel is required to file an accident report if an event results in a death, an injury that requires medical treatment beyond first aid, or if damage to a vessel or property totals $2,000, according to the Coast Guard.
A Maryland law, effective since 1988, requires anyone born after July 1, 1972, to have a boating safety certificate before operating any motorized vessel, said Julie Brown, boating safety coordinator for the Natural Resources Police.
Maryland was the first to get a law passed that reached a significant number of boaters, said Brown. While the law went into effect in the 1980’s, the state is now starting to see significant results.
“Before it was catching people in their teens, now we’re into the 30 (year-olds),” said Brown. “We believe that the education is the tool to decreasing the accidents out there.”
Rod Jabin, the owner of Bert Jabin’s Yacht Yard, said the course required by Maryland is very important for new boaters.
“I think it’s a place to start,” said Jabin. “What I don’t want to do is add too much red tape in order to get on the water and enjoy yourself. . . . There should be a basic understanding.”
Even with the strict regulations, some are still not getting the message. In 2003, 30 boat operators required to have a safety certificate and involved in an accident reported no education, according to the database.
Any course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators is acceptable for boat operators in Maryland, as long as they take a proctored exam, said Brown. Certifications from online courses are not valid in Maryland. The state-approved course can be taken at almost every community college, according to Brown.
“People need to understand that when they purchase a boat, they need to go through the process of finding out exactly what they need to have,” said Brown.
There are four exceptions to the boating safety education laws: commercial boat operators; an out-of-state resident older than 16 in an out-of-state vessel; a temporary visitor operating a foreign-registered vessel; operators of boats on private waters.
It cannot be determined from the database if any of the 31 cases met any exceptions.
In addition to boater safety, waterways police also are promoting alcohol awareness. Maryland only had one more alcohol-related accident in 2003 than in 2002, according to the database, but the national number increased by nearly 4.5 percent.
“We are always focusing on the fact that drinking and boating don’t mix,” said Brown.
The state acquired a damaged vessel from a drinking-and-boating accident and has displayed it in Ocean City and Sandy Point. It plans to highlight the boat again in the future, said Brown.
And while the NTSB recognized the efforts by Maryland, it would like to see stricter rules on use of life jackets. Of the 183 vessels involved in Maryland accidents in 2003, 31 did not have Coast Guard-approved life jackets on board. Life jackets also were not accessible in 69 cases, according to the database.
Maryland requires those under the age of 7 to wear life jackets, but the NTSB would like to raise the mandatory age to 13, said Gossard.
Maryland’s national ranking improved in several categories from 2002. Twenty states had more boating-related fatalities in 2003 and two had the same. Twelve states had more alcohol-related accidents and one had the same.