Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson
Boat Operator Education
We are now in the fourth year of the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation’s mandatory boater education program and I thought it would be a good time to take a look at the accident statistics and see if the program is making a difference. The program reports each year on April 1 and the interim report is due in 2023. The interim report must include recommendations in consultation with the technical advisory group, relating to any program changes to improve boater safety in California, or alternatively, reasons why the program should not be continued.
The Department of Boating and Waterways was established in 1957 upon enactment of legislation supported by the recreational boating community. That legislation established a state boating agency dedicated to all aspects of recreational boating and a special account, the Harbors and Watercraft Revolving Fund (HWRF), to fund its activities. In July 2013, the Department of Boating and Waterways merged with the Department of Parks and Recreation. The merger was part of Governor Brown’s 2012 Reorganization Plan to consolidate and simplify the state’s organizational structure and was purportedly to add efficiencies by combining and streamlining duplicative functions, thereby reducing costs and saving taxpayer dollars. In reality, this efficiency left boat owners with less funds as the Department of Parks and Recreation no longer had to use the HWRF strictly for the benefits of boat owners. The HWRF receives no monies from the state’s General Fund. It is comprised of boat fuel tax dollars, registration fees, federal monies and interest payments on loans from the HWRF. The Department of Parks and Recreation has diverted funds from the HWRF to support programs that are of little or no benefit to boaters including beach restoration.
On Sept. 18, 2014, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed Senate Bill 941 promoting boating safety education for California boat operators. The impetus was based on the United States Coast Guard statistics indicating that states with mandatory boating education have fewer accidents and fatalities than those without mandatory boating education. However, currently 45 of the 50 states have some form of mandatory boating education requirements. The exceptions to educational requirements include Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota and Wyoming. Idaho does have education requirements for operators renting a PWC, boat operators convicted of DUI and repeat offenders of boating laws. In the other 45 states, not all vessel operators are required to complete an approved course because they were born before a specific date. At present, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety estimates that less than 28% of boat operators are subject to some form of boat operator education requirements. Looking at the accident statistics for these five states compared to the other 45 states, the claim that states with mandatory boater education have lower accident rates does not seem to hold up.
The Boater Card
The California Boater Card is proof that you have successfully completed all the components of an approved boater safety course. Vessel operators who are required to have the California Boater Card must carry the card on board the vessel and have it available for inspection by any law enforcement officer. If a visiting boat operator has an operator license from their home state or territory, they can operate legally in California. Canadian Pleasure Craft Operator cards are also acceptable.
According to California law, the following persons are not required to have a boater card to operate a motorized vessel on California waterways:
- A person operating a rental vessel.
- A person operating a vessel while under the direct supervision of a person 18 years of age or older who is in possession of a California Boater Card.
- A person who is a resident of a state other than California who is temporarily operating a vessel in California for less than 60 days and meets the boating requirements, if any, of his/her state.
- A person who is a resident of a country other than the United States who is temporarily operating a vessel in California for less than 90 days and meets the boating requirements, if any, of his/her country.
- A person operating a vessel in an organized regatta or vessel race, or water ski race.
- A person who is in possession of a current commercial fishing license.
- A person who is in possession of a valid marine operator license, for the waters upon which the licensee is operating, issued by the United States Coast Guard, or who is in possession of a valid certificate issued pursuant to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, as amended.
- A person who has successfully completed a boating course approved by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training Post.
California age restrictions for operating a motorized vessel: According to California Harbors and Navigation Code Section 658.5, no person under 16 years of age may operate a boat with a motor of more than 15 horsepower, except for a sailboat that does not exceed 30 feet in length or a dinghy used directly between a moored boat and the shore or between two moored boats. The law allows children 12-15 years of age to operate boats with a motor of more than 15 horsepower or sailboats over 30 feet if supervised on board by an adult at least 18 years of age who is in possession of a California Boater Card. Boat operators aged 16 or 17 who are not in possession of a California Boater Card may operate a vessel if supervised by an adult at least 18 years of age who is in possession of a California Boater Card. Violating these provisions constitutes an infraction.
A violation of this article (Harbors and Navigation Code Section 678.15) is an infraction and a person convicted of an infraction for a violation of this article shall be fined as follows:
- For an initial conviction, by a fine of to more than $100.
- For a second conviction, by a fine of no more than $250.
- For a third or subsequent conviction, by a fine of no more $500.
- A fine imposed on a vessel operator pursuant to subdivision (b) shall be waived, if the vessel operator provides proof that he or she had a valid vessel operator card at the time of the citation.
- In addition to the fines imposed by subdivision (b), the court shall order a person convicted of violating this article to complete and pass a boating safety course approved by the division pursuant to Section 668.3.
- If a person who is ordered to complete and pass a boating safety course pursuant to paragraph (1) is 18 years of age or younger, the court may require that person to obtain the consent of a parent or guardian to enroll in that course.
- A person who has been ordered by a court to complete a boating safety course pursuant to paragraph (1) shall submit to the court proof of completion and passage of the course within seven months of the date of his or her conviction. The proof shall be in a form that has been approved by the division and that is capable of being submitted to the court or a state or local agency approved by the division through the U.S. Postal Service or another certified means of transmission.
2018 to 2021 Statistics
In 2018 there were 469 reported boating accidents in California. Out of those 469 accidents, there were 207 injuries and 35 fatalities. There were 632 reported operators involved in these boating accidents. Out of these 632 operators, 28 reported that they had taken a state boating safety course.
In 2019 there were 471 reported boating accidents in California. Out of those 471 accidents, there were 213 injuries and 46 fatalities. There were 638 reported operators involved in these boating accidents. Out of the 638 operators, 19 reported that they had taken a state boating safety course.
In 2020 there were 660 reported boating accidents in California. Out of those 660 accidents, there were 321 injuries and 41 fatalities. There were 928 reported operators involved in these boating accidents with 36 of those operators involved in a fatal accident. Out of the 928 operators, 29 reported that they had taken a state boating safety course and 40 reported that they had a California Boater Card.
In 2021 there were 593 reported boating accidents in California. Out of those 593 accidents, there were 256 injuries and 44 fatalities. There were 670 reported operators involved in a boating accident with 37 of those operators involved in a fatal accident. Out of the 670 operators, 29 reported that they had taken a state boating safety course and 40 reported that they had a California Boater Card. Out of the 40 operators who had a California Boater Card, none were involved in a fatal boating accident.
No, I did not mix up the 2020 and 2021 numbers. These came directly from the California Boater Card Program Report. But I agree the data does look suspicious.
Although the data looks better in 2021, the large number of unknown education ranges from a low of 30% in 2021 to a high of 48% in 2018 and is so large the rest of the data is suspect. And I think it is too soon to see a trend as 2020 data is most likely an anomaly due to the large number of new and inexperienced boat owners.
California’s mandatory boater education program began on Jan 1, 2018. It will be interesting to see the impact this requirement will have once all boat operators are required to have mandated education in 2025. A wildcard is the boat operators that are exempt from California education: Persons operating a rental vessel, an operator that is not a resident of California and has met their home state requirements if any and a person who is a resident of another country and meets the boat operator requirements of their home country if any. However, in the end, you would think that nearly every operator that completes the course should be a much more informed and competent boater. From my personal observation, I do not see a difference and the data from the state does not seem to suggest fewer accidents even though they have issued some 125,000 licenses.
In the fourth year of implementation, DBW received 48,946 applications and issued 39,053 cards. As of Jan 1, 2022, DBW has received approximately 157,990 applications and issued approximately 124,368 cards. Out of the 13 approved courses for the CBC Program, 92 percent completed one of the online courses, seven percent completed the DBW home study course and one percent completed a classroom/on-the-water course. The graph below shows the number of applications received and the number of cards issued each year. The difference in number between applications submitted and cards issued is largely due to the time when a boater applies for their California Boater Card and when their education has been completed. I have personally audited two of the online courses and find them to be targeted towards the jet ski and ski boat operators which makes sense since the USCG accident statistics indicate that in 2020 74% of all accidents nationally occur on vessels under 26 feet in length. The age group of 36-55 accounted for nearly 30% of all accidents. Perhaps we will see some improvement as this age group will be required to have their California Boater Card. However, the data does not suggest that 50-year-old operators are running jet skis, wake boats and ski boats less than 26 feet in length.
We are nearly midway through the phase-in period for all boat operators to have their California Boater Card. The program started on Jan 1, 2018, and by Jan 1, 2025 all boat operators will be required to have their operator license.
- January 1, 2018 Persons 20 years of age or younger
- January 1, 2019 Persons 25 years of age or younger
- January 1, 2020 Persons 35 years of age or younger
- January 1, 2021 Persons 40 years of age or younger
- January 1, 2022 Persons 45 years of age or younger
- January 1, 2023 Persons 50 years of age or younger
- January 1, 2024 Persons 60 years of age or younger
- January 1, 2025 All persons regardless of age
What can we all do to promote safe boating? First, let’s determine what unsafe boat operation is. Such behaviors as boating while intoxicated, not wearing a personal flotation device, operating your vessel at a high speed in “no wake” zones, crowded waterways, in restricted visibility and near fixed objects at or near persons in the water are all deemed unsafe. Not being familiar with or understanding the navigation rules, not keeping a proper lookout and being unfamiliar with your particular vessel’s handling characteristics all contribute to unsafe operation. What are the two things we can all do to immediately lower the boating accident rates? Wear your personal flotation device and cease the use of alcohol while operating a vessel. A recent maritime operations accident analysis reports that 71 percent of human errors were situational awareness related problems. High stress situations can cause distraction or fixation, physical or mental fatigue affects alertness and the desire to get home creates excessive motivation.
Do not become a statistic, boat safe.
Time for me to sit back, enjoy a good glass of port and light up a fine cigar. Until next month, please keep those letters coming. If you have a good story to tell, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love a good story.