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Trying to make Minnesota boating safer, legislation would extend safety training to adults

Currently, young people ages 12 to 17 must pass an online boater safety exam through the Department of Natural Resources. Companion bills taken up by the Senate and House this session would increase the age requirement to anyone born on or after July 1, 1987.

SPORTS--OTD-BOATING-SAFETY-MS
Boaters cruise the waters of Lake Minnetonka Friday, May 25, 2018, in Minnetonka Beach, Minn. Current Minnesota law calls for boat safety education for youth only to operate watercraft.
David Joles / Minneapolis Star Tribune / TNS
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(TNS) — Attempting to make the state's waters safer, proposals before legislators would require more Minnesotans to take a boater safety course before they could operate motorized boats and personal watercraft.

Currently, young people ages 12 to 17 must pass an online boater safety exam through the Department of Natural Resources. Companion bills taken up by the Senate and House this session would increase the age requirement to anyone born on or after July 1, 1987. (The proposal is in the House omnibus package.) Boating and lake association advocates, conservationists and law enforcement support the legislation and say the timing is right to bring operating watercraft in line with other regulations.

Already the state with the most watercraft per capita, Minnesota registered 831,000 boats in 2021, an increase of about 10,000 from 2020. Of the top five states by registration, Minnesota is the only one whose boater education rules don't apply to adults.

Conservation officers who enforce the laws on state waterways have witnessed the uptick in traffic and, with it, have issued more warnings to novices about issues like too few life jackets — or none at all, said Lisa Dugan of the DNR's Law Enforcement Division.

Dugan said Minnesota has an opportunity to "catch up."

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"It does seem like there are a lot more new boaters," she said, "and it is interesting to think about getting the keys to a vehicle and not having any education before taking it out.

"So many people grew up in boating families and had that knowledge passed down, and it may not be happening as much."

Here are answers to several questions about the possible rules changes:

What is Minnesota's current regulation for operating a boat or personal watercraft?

Children younger than 12 can operate watercraft with 25 horsepower or less with no restrictions. Depending on the vessel's size, a 25 horsepower can propel it from 8 mph to 25 mph or more. There are no restrictions for anyone 12 to 17 either, but for any craft with more than 25 horsepower they must have either an operator's permit after taking a boating safety exam or someone at least 21 years old onboard near the controls.

What was the impetus for this legislation?

Stakeholders such as lake associations, resort owners, and the boating industry support the legislation, said Jill C. Sims, Great Lakes policy and engagement manager for the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA), a trade group. Statistics support the value of boater safety education, too. In its most recent national report citing increased boating during the pandemic, the U.S. Coast Guard said the rate of boating fatalities rose 25% in 2020 from 2019. Accidents were up 26.3%. The report said 77% of the deaths happened on watercraft where the operator hadn't received boating safety instruction.

In a March letter asking for the Minnesota House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee's support, advocates of the legislation said with boating and fishing on the rise "the time is now to implement boater education to ensure operators are safe on the water and we continue to be the best stewards of the resource." Among the signers were the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations; Minnesota Lakes & Rivers Advocates; Tonka Bay Marine; and the NMMA.

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How was Minnesota's boat safety year in 2021?

There were 18 boating fatalities, most of them drownings and the most deaths since 2016. Another 69 nonfatal boating accidents occurred. More than a third were caused by collisions with other watercraft, according to the DNR.

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When would the new law go into effect?

July 1, 2024. The legislation also calls for the DNR commissioner to work with stakeholders to develop and implement the boater safety course and test, which must be certified by the National Association of State Boat Law Administrators (NASBLA). Sims said the exams have state-specific modifications. Minnesota would have some emphasis on best practices for identifying and removing aquatic invasive species, too.

What about Minnesotans who already acquired their boating safety certificate but still fall within the new age threshold?

Boaters likely would be able to show proof that they've passed boater safety training.

What do other comparable boating states require?

Like Minnesota, Florida is perennially among states with the most registered boats. Florida residents born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, must have a boating safety identification card to operate a motorboat with 10 horsepower or more. In Michigan, residents born after June 30, 1996, must have a boater education card. Also, anyone younger than 14 cannot operate personal watercraft, like Jet Skis or Wave Runners. Lastly, Wisconsin requires anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1989, to have a boating safety certification card.

How would a new requirement affect people from out of state?

Out-of-state boaters are bound by their state regulations when operating watercraft in Minnesota. For example, boaters from Wisconsin must be safety-certified if they are born on or after Jan 1, 1989. South Dakota, for another example, has no boating safety requirements.

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How would these proposals affect businesses that rent watercraft?

All renters would fall under Minnesota's regulations and would need to take a short boating safety exam, good for 60 days.

What are Minnesota boaters' perceptions of boating in the state?

Most of the 2,900 recreational boaters surveyed for a DNR study published in 2020 didn't have a problem with activities occurring on lakes and rivers, although "common problems" cited were high wakes and boats going too fast or close to shore. Recreational boaters in the metro area complained most of the high wakes; they also felt overcrowding was more of an issue than Greater Minnesota boaters.

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