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Making waves: A locally driven bill aims to reform California boating safety education 

Each year between 2004 and 2013, somewhere between 38 and 58 people were killed in California boating accidents.

That’s not all. In that same time range, there were between 247 and 482 California boating accident injuries per year. Each of those years also saw between $2.4 and $10.6 million in boating accident property damage.

For some people, those are just statistics. For others, they’re a call to action.

Two of the latter are California state senators Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) and Bill Monning (D-Carmel). After receiving letters from constituents in each of their districts who have lost family members to boating accidents, the senators co-authored SB 941.

If approved by Gov. Jerry Brown, the bill would require the state to develop a vessel operator education program and issue “vessel operator cards.” Aside from a few exceptions, operating a boat with an engine without one of these cards would eventually become illegal.

California—with its abundant waterways and boats—is one of five states (including Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming, and South Dakota) with absolutely no recreational boating education requirements.

This means that California boat operators as young as 12 years old can be behind the wheel of a boat with no education, license, or adult present—and it’s still perfectly legal.

“It’s incredibly remiss of California, because the state is progressive on practically everything and missing in action here. It’s baffling,” said Marion Irving DeCruz, a Los Osos resident, boating safety advocate, and major proponent of SB 941.

Irving DeCruz first became involved in the boating safety battle when her 20-year-old son Emilio was killed in a boating accident at Lake Havasu in 1993.

Shortly thereafter, Irving DeCruz founded the advocacy group SPIN (Stop Propeller Injuries Now!) and immersed herself in the issues and politics of state and national boating safety.

It’s been a long and tiresome 22-year fight for Irving DeCruz, who said she’s seen frustratingly little progress when it comes to regulating the lucrative and lobbyist-heavy marine industry.

According to Bethany Westfall, legislative director for Sen. Monning, the senator—whose district includes all of SLO County—received letters from Irving DeCruz and one other constituent in 2013 about boating safety, and was incredulous to learn the state had no mandatory boating education program.

“We’re talking about large, motorized vehicles and people who have no education and no idea about how they work,” Westfall said. “These are life-and-death consequences.”

After Monning and DeSaulnier first introduced SB 941 on Feb. 4, the bill passed through various committees easily, sailed through the state Assembly on Aug. 20 with a 51-25-3 vote (ayes, noes, no vote recorded), and passed the state Senate on Aug. 21 with a 23-7-10 vote.

The bill was presented to Gov. Brown on Aug. 28 and—according to spokesman Evan Westrup—the governor has until Sept. 30 to decide whether to sign or veto the bill.

When asked for comment on SB 941, Westrup told New Times the governor’s office generally doesn’t comment on legislation ahead of action from the governor.

The issue of boating safety education in California does have a troublesome legislative history; former governors Gray Davis (in 1999) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (in 2007) both vetoed bills similar to SB 941.

Generalized and simplified, opposition to boating safety education programs seems to stem from either fiscal concerns or insufficient evidence that boating safety courses reduce boating accidents.

In response, boating safety proponents say the expense of educational programs is worth it, and also cite a 2006 study by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA).

That study found that states with the longest histories of boating education requirements also had the lowest average accident fatality rates. Conversely, the states with no boating education in place had the highest fatality rates.

“With this bill, hopefully we can really make a big impact,” said Keith Jackson, a Redding-based boating safety advocate and president of MariTech Industries, an industry leader in marine safety equipment. “We’re so excited about this bill because it could finally be the first step for California.”

While SB 941 didn’t attract much support from Republicans, it did, notably, garner the endorsement of industry groups like the California Yacht Brokers Association (CYBA), the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the National Boating Federation.

“SB 941 strikes a good balance between ensuring that vehicle operators are sufficiently educated about boating safety and vessel operation without imposing an excessive burden that could serve as a barrier to entry and harm this critical aspect of our state’s economy,” the CYBA wrote in a statement of support for the bill.

Ultimately, what matters to Irving DeCruz, Jackson, Monning, and supporters of SB 941 is minimizing needless injuries and loss of life on California’s waterways.

“For me, I lost my only child, so anything that changes the boating safety situation as it exists right now is for the positive,” Irving DeCruz said. “This bill is one of the pathways.”

Update: Hours after this article ran in the Sept. 18 issue of New Times, California Gov. Jerry Brown officially signed SB 941 into law. The bill will require all recreational boat operators to apply for a "vessel operator card" through a staggered process slated to begin in 2018 and eventually apply to everyone by 2025.

In a Sept. 19 news release, bill co-author Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) said that, "Requiring first time boaters to pass a safety exam will save lives, decrease the number of boating accidents, and enhance public safety on the state's waterways ... I applaud the Governor for signing this important piece of legislation."

Contact Staff Writer Rhys Heyden at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

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