This week, the South Carolina House of Representatives will have the opportunity to finally pass boating safety reform. The House judiciary committee will meet on Tuesday to decide the outcome of the “Boating Safety and Education Bill” of 2023 – S.96. The fate of this legislation rests solely in the hands of this committee. But their approval might not come so easily. After all, this same committee was responsible for stalling this legislation for the past two years. If the committee passes the legislation, though, a vote on the floor of the House could come as early as Wednesday.
What is the purpose of this legislation?
This legislation is called the “Boating Safety and Education” bill for a good reason. Its objective is to make our waterways safer by educating the public on how to safely operate a boat.
The legislation would require anyone born after July 1, 2007 to take a boating safety course in order to operate a boat or jet ski by themselves. These courses are available free online at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR)’s website. Anyone born on or before July 1, 2007, would be exempt.
Nationwide, only four states do not require some form of boater education. Our current requirements for boater education end once a person turns sixteen. After that, there is ABSOLUTELY NO requirement.
Why is this legislation needed?
Tourism is a key driving force in South Carolina’s economy. Our beautiful waterways contribute immensely to the state’s tourism market. Boating and fishing represent a combined $5.1 billion a year economic impact to our state. South Carolina has more than half a million registered boats and ranks 7th nationally in boat ownership, with one in ten South Carolinians owning a boat. With 8,000 miles of rivers, 460,000 acres of lakes and 3,000 miles of coastline, our state has plenty of water resources for our citizens and tourists. Yet, while our state’s lakes and rivers can be sources of tremendous fun and entertainment, they can also be the site of needless tragedy.
Unfortunately, boating in our state is becoming more dangerous. This is partly because of an increasing number of new boaters today that did not have someone teach them how to safely operate a boat. Couple that with the fact that some waterways are so crowded due to record boat sales made worse by the massive influx of out-of-state residents and first-time boat owners who have never operated a boat, and you have an accident just waiting to happen.
During COVID, the number of people who went boating exploded. Unlike traditional activities, boating was the one thing your family could do that separated you from crowds of people in confined spaces. As a result, many new first-time boaters entered the market – many with no boating experience.
If you noticed more boats on the water, you’re not alone. The National Marine Manufacturers Association says retail unit sales of new powerboats in the U.S. reached a 13-year high in 2020 with nearly 320,000 units sold, an increase of 13 percent compared to 2019. Annual U.S. sales of boats, marine products and services totaled $49.3 billion in 2020, increasing by 14 percent over 2019 totals. An estimated one hundred million Americans go boating each year.
A recent U.S. Coast Guard report stated that 75 percent of deaths occurred on watercraft where the operator had no boating safety training – compared to just 16 percent of deaths in which the operator had received boating safety training. It’s not getting any better, either. From 2019 to 2020, boating accidents nationwide increased 26.3 percent, injuries increased 24.7 percent and deaths increased 25 percent.
For many years Lake Murray led the state in boating accidents, but in the past five years that has shifted to the Lowcountry with three counties (Berkeley, Charleston and Horry) known as the deadliest in the state. The upstate is not faring well either with an increasing number of accidents on Lake Hartwell and Lake Keowee. According to SCDNR, when comparing 2018 with 2022 totals, our state’s boating deaths increased by 46 percent.
Today many boaters no longer boat on holidays or weekends out of fear for their family’s safety. When asked what the major problem on the water is today, most boaters will tell you it’s operators who don’t know what they are doing.
Not too often do our elected officials have the opportunity to pass legislation that will in fact save lives. If enacted, this bill will do just that.
South Carolina has long been known as the deadliest state in the nation for driving, unfortunately. Let’s not make it the deadliest for boating as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Randall Smith’s 11-year-old son, Drew, was killed by an impaired boater in 1997. He has been a supporter of boating safety issues in South Carolina for over 25 years. He is no stranger to politics in our state. He wrote the Boating Safety and Reform Act of 1999, also known as Drew’s Law, which is still the state’s boating law today. He is the Founder and Chairman of Boating Safety South Carolina and a founding board member of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council.
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