LAKE WYLIE -- With his mandatory boater education bill motoring quickly along, North Carolina state Rep. Michael Wray is "very optimistic" a new law could come from the current session. And, he's not alone.
"We weren't quite expecting it this quickly," said Charles "Bo" Ibach, Charlotte Power Squadron member and former vice chairman of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission.
Ibach, a long-time supporter of boating safety locally, met with effort organizers in Raleigh last year to discuss the possibility of a law requiring a boater education class to operate a vessel. Also spearheading that effort was the Lake Gaston Association, which helped pass a similar law in Virginia.
"Nationally, there's an effort to put forth mandatory boater education from a number of groups," said Pete Deschenes, organizer with the association. "It is statistically proven that when states have mandatory education, the number of accidents and fatalities goes down."
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Wray introduced a bill at the end of the last legislative session, but not in time for the required committee hearings and floor debate. Last month on Feb. 3, Wray filed H. 39 and saw it pass first reading the following day, referring the bill to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations. Eight days later the bill was referred to the Committee on Wildlife Resources. If approved, the bill would be presented to a judiciary committee and could then be debated by the House.
"We're steadily moving forward," Wray said. "I'm very optimistic. We just went into session the end of January, and we just set up our committees. It's active now."
A companion bill, S. 43, was filed Feb. 2 in the state Senate and referred to the Committee on Commerce the following day. Wray is not sure when the bill might first be debated, but he said he sees the speedy process as a positive sign.
Deschenes, who worked six years to pass the Virginia boating law, has five years invested in the North Carolina effort. Similar to Lake Wylie, Lake Gaston borders two states with two Virginian and three North Carolinian counties surrounding it. Deschenes expects some resistance, but he doubts it will "coalesce around anything."
"It appears that there's two groups of people who want to resist," Deschenes said. "The coastal water areas want to resist because of an inherent distrust of regulation. They tend to look at it as an inland water problem."
The other group that is "less than enthusiastic" is long-time boaters who think the law is unnecessary, he said.
Still, a number of groups from marine commissions to U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary to power squadrons are "waiting for the call to arms to come," Deschenes said, at which point the groups plan to contact state legislators favoring the bill.
As for the bill itself, the text states anyone operating a "vessel with a motor of 10 hp or greater" in North Carolina would be required to pass a boating safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
New boat owners or out-of-state boaters would be allowed 90 days before facing the requirement. Someone operating a boat could do so without taking the course, given supervision from someone who has.
Local groups such as the Charlotte Power Squadron would be allowed to administer tests, however, Ibach would like online exams excluded.
"We tried to express the need for a proctored exam," Ibach said, "so that we know who's claiming knowledge of that exam."
According to NASBLA, 47 states or territories have some form of mandatory education, but only eight have full mandatory education requirements for all boaters. If passed in North Carolina, the new law would require vessel operators aged 20 or younger to comply by July 11, 2011. A year later, 30 years and younger, and so on until all boaters would be required to pass a course by July 11, 2016.
"Nationally they have found that is easiest,"Deschenes said of the phasing-in approach, "both for the agencies that regulate the education and for the boaters themselves."
While the Lake Gaston Association is optimistic since Virginia passed the boating education law and North Carolina appears close to doing the same, the issue could be more complicated on Lake Wylie. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mike Willis told the Lake Wylie Pilot last spring "the time people spend on their boats and on the water is viewed by the Legislature as people's free time," and "the Legislature strives to place as few regulations on people as possible."
"Pretty much it's not a pressing issue," Willis said. "The issue has been brought up in the past. It's been discussed, but it's never really moved beyond that."
The most recent effort came in 2005 when then-S.C. state Rep. Ralph Norman proposed the idea. The issue never came up for vote. How Lake Wylie, resting on two states, would be handled still needs to be decided, Wray said.
"People don't like changes, but if you have an opportunity to save a life, you need to do it," he said.