BOATING EDUCATION

Proves to be a Lifesaver

story by Adam Einck, LDWF Public Information

Many Louisianans consider operating a boat a birthright. Because of the balmy weather, freshwater and saltwater fishing opportunities and the array of navigable rivers, lakes, bayous and saltwater areas, boating in Louisiana is a 365 day-a-year activity.

But because Bayou State residents are on the water for more days than most states, it increases the odds for boating incidents and fatalities.

In an effort to decrease the total number of boating fatalities in the state, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement Division instituted a mandatory boating education program in the summer of 2003. This program made it mandatory for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1988, operating a vessel with a motor of more than 10 horsepower to take a National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) safe boating course. In 2008 the age requirement changed to anyone born after Jan. 1, 1984, which effectively added a larger percentage of boaters who have completed the course operating vessels on the water.

Based on a NASBLA study, states with no mandatory boating education program average 6.61 fatalities per 100,000 registered vessels whereas states with a mandatory boating education program of 20 years or more average 3.67 fatalities per 100,000 registered vessels.

“The NASBLA data showing states that have a long established boating education program cuts fatalities basically in half compared to states that don’t have one really drives home the importance of the boating education program we administer here at the department,” said Lt. Col. Sammy Martin, Louisiana’s state boating law administrator. “Hopefully the longer this program is in existence it will have a direct correlation to a lower number of boating incidents and fatalities in the state.”

Long before the institution of the mandatory boating education program, Louisiana recorded high numbers of fatalities in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. From 1974, the first year the state started recording boating safety data, to 1979, Louisiana averaged 69 boating fatalities a year. From 1980 to 1989, Louisiana averaged 58 boating fatalities a year. From 1990 to 1999, Louisiana averaged 33 boating fatalities a year, including only 19 in 1992, which was the record low until 2013.

In the 10 years prior to the mandatory boating education program, from 1993 to 2002, Louisiana averaged 36.4 boating fatalities a year. In the 10 years after the start of the mandatory boating education program, from 2004-2013, Louisiana averaged 30.1 boating fatalities a year.

“We are really starting to see a dividend in the form of lower fatalities on Louisiana’s waterways from our mandatory boating education program,” Martin said. “While the education program can’t take all the credit as the enforcement division has really cracked down on operating a vessel on the water while under the influence and introduced stricter personal flotation device laws, we feel the education program has contributed greatly in the decrease in fatalities.”

As a matter of fact, Louisiana recorded a record low number of fatalities of just 15 deaths on the water in 2013. In 2014 Louisiana recorded 18 boating fatalities with another 22 boating fatalities in 2015. The 2016 data has not yet been released by the U.S. Coast Guard.

These low boating fatality numbers in the past few years has brought Louisiana’s boating fatality rate per 100,000 boaters down. From 1999 to 2008, Louisiana averaged a boating fatality rate of 11.82 fatalities per 100,000 registered vessels. From 2009 to 2015 the boating fatality rate has averaged eight fatalities per 100,000 vessels. Even more impressive is the average of six fatalities per 100,000 vessels from 2013-2015.

“Our goal all along for our boating education program was to lower boating fatalities and the number of fatalities per 100,000 registered vessels. One of the worst things we do as agents is to notify family members that their loved one is no longer with us,” said boating safety education program manager Lt. Clay Marques. “We are less than 15 years into the program and we are starting to see a positive impact on the number of boating fatalities across the state. We really hope this trend continues as more and more boaters get certified as safe boaters.”

To date Louisiana has certified more than 100,000 boaters through the NASBLA approved boating safety courses. LDWF offers an online and an in class with instructor versions of the course, both free of charge.

“Right now the way the law works anybody younger than 33 years of age is basically required to take the course,” Marques said. “Eventually there will come a time when everybody operating a vessel over 10 horsepower will be required to take a course in Louisiana.”

To register for a boating safety course, please visit www.wlf.louisiana.gov/boating and follow the links for the boating safety courses. Classes are offered for free year round in just about every part of the state.

The NASBLA approved boating course includes information on choosing a boat, classification, hulls, motors, legal requirements and equipment requirements. The course also covers many navigation rules and charts, trailering, sailboats, canoeing, personal watercraft and more.

“The boating education course we provide offers something for everybody whether you are a beginner or an experienced boater,” Marques said. “We see a lot of longtime boaters that take the course with their children or grandchildren and they always say they have learned something new each time. So while the course is mandatory for some, it is something anybody can take and learn a lot of safety information that they can use on the water.”

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