Responsible boating falls to individuals to take precautions and be educated about safety.

Boating is one of America’s favorite pastimes. Nearly one quarter of the population goes boating every year. There are more than 16 million boats in use in the United States, with 113,000 in Maine. To make the most of your time on the water, it is important to know the rules of the road. Unfortunately, each year statistics bear proof that more could be done to know these simple rules. We all must remember, boats don’t cause accidents; irresponsible, reckless operators do.

Boating safety education is vital. Coast Guard statistics consistently show that 70 percent of all boating fatalities occur on boats where the operator has not received boating safety instruction. The most common cause of boating accidents involves operator inexperience, excessive speed and operator inattention.

States that have adopted some form of boater education have seen meaningful and measurable decline in the number of accidents and fatalities. For instance, Florida requires all boaters 21 years of age and younger to pass an approved boating course. Since the law was enacted in 1996, U.S. Coast Guard data show the total number of boating accidents decreasing approximately 48 percent, even while the number of registered boats increased by 24 percent. Equally as impressive, accidents involving personal watercraft have declined 78 percent. These numbers speak for themselves; boating safety classes do work and help reduce accidents on the water.

Unfortunately, Maine is one of only two New England states that lacks some form of mandatory boating safety education. While the Legislature has introduced boater education bills, any measure has yet to garner enough support. By passing mandatory boater education legislation, Maine will assert its leadership for doing the right thing. Not only will boating become safer, but this will also reduce the burden on the state to continue funding expensive rescue operations. Everyone wins.

An added problem is that many boaters are taking to the waters without the proper gear. The Coast Guard estimates that 87 percent of boaters who drowned in 2005 were not wearing life jackets. According to this data, most boaters have life jackets aboard but simply are not wearing them. Personal watercraft operators, however, are required to wear life jackets at all times.

The personal watercraft industry actively encourages states to require all operators of its products, regardless of age or prior boating experience, to successfully complete a course before leaving the dock. In addition to supporting mandatory boater education, our industry advocates for all states to adopt its model legislation.

The model bill encourages states to set a minimum age requirement of 16 years to operate a personal watercraft (or 18 to rent one). The legislation also encourages personal watercraft use only during daylight, rules against reckless operation and operation at slow-no-wake speed within 100 feet of shore, anchored boats, piers, or swimmers.

Furthermore, personal watercraft manufacturers offer programs that loan vessels to law enforcement and rescue agencies so they can enhance their on-water patrols and clamp down on irresponsible and reckless boaters.

Currently, Maine’s boating rules include the age restriction of 16 to operate a personal watercraft and minors who are under the age of 18 are the responsibility of their parent or guardian when using one. In addition, there are rules for wearing life jackets and strict rules of hours of operation from sunset to sunrise.

While state and local agencies are working hard to keep boaters safe, most of the responsibility falls on the individual. But, we all can take steps that will help prevent a boating tragedy. Our industry strongly recommends the following safe boating practices:

• Take a boating safety education course;

• Always wear a life jacket (and wetsuit bottoms in the case of personal watercraft);

• Follow local navigation rules and be a courteous and responsible operator;

• Stay sober and never boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs;

• Never leave a child unattended or allow a child to operate a vessel.

It is clear we must all do our part to eliminate reckless boating behavior. Whether boating is already your family’s favorite pastime, or being considered for next summer, we must all boat smart from the start. In so doing, we can all lead by example.

Maureen Healey is executive director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, which represents the four manufacturers of personal watercraft: American Honda Motor Company (AquaTrax), BRP US, Inc. (Sea-Doo), Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A. (JET SKI) and Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A. (WaveRunner).

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