For safer waters

May 11, 1993

Maryland is far in front of other states in boating safety measures. Now the National Transportation Safety Board raises the question whether that is enough. After studying accident data from a cross-section of states, the federal agency said their governments should consider licensing sailors, tighten controls on drunk boaters and compel children to wear life jackets while on the water. Maryland treats drunken boaters about the same as it does drunk drivers: They are tested and can go to jail. But it fails to compel protection for children on the water, and it balks at licensing.

State officials and boating interests battled over licensing for several years in the mid-'80s. Eventually the legislature created a mandatory education program for young boaters. With some exceptions, no one born since 1972 can operate a boat without completing a safety course approved by the state. Only Connecticut and Vermont have comparable requirements. The age limit creeps up each year, but not until well into the next decade will it cover all boaters in the 25-to-35 age group, those most prone to accidents. This season anyone over 21 can operate a high-performance boat in Maryland without necessarily knowing the equivalent of keeping to the right on a highway.

Maryland's pioneering education program is too new to show conclusive results. More than 25,000 young boaters have been certified through the state program since 1988, and perhaps as many more have taken equivalent courses from the Coast Guard Auxiliary or Power Squadrons. But there are some 180,000 boats registered in Maryland. One hopeful sign: The youngest boating fatality last year was 26 years old.

Lamentably, the legislature has again failed to mandate the use of personal flotation devices by children on the water. Its refusal is especially perplexing because there is no strong opposition to the eminently sensible idea. More debateable is the NTSB's pressure for all boaters to wear life jackets on the water. Although drowning is overwhelmingly the principal cause of death in water accidents -- and most do not occur in bad weather -- sailors resist wearing the uncomfortable life jackets.

If the past is any guide, Maryland's boating safety laws won't be strengthened until there is a sharp upsurge in accidents or a spectacular one like the death of Francis Ford Coppola's son in 1986 that preceded passage of the mandatory education law. Perhaps the deaths of the two Cleveland Indians pitchers in Florida this spring will at least stimulate some hard thinking in Annapolis about the next step in boating safety here.

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