Expanding boater education classes needed to improve safety on Oklahoma's waterways, lawmaker says

Giving more teeth to alcohol limit laws on the water also should be explored, state Rep. Pat Ownbey says. But the Oklahoma legislator is leery of requiring boaters to wear life jackets anytime they're on the water.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT mmcnutt@opubco.com Modified: September 8, 2012 at 9:45 pm •  Published: September 9, 2012
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Expanding boater education classes and beefing up alcohol regulations to make Oklahoma's waterways safer should be tried before taking more aggressive steps such as requiring life jackets be worn at all times in boats and outlawing the consumption of beer, a legislator says.

“Education will be our primary focus from a legislative standpoint,” said Rep. Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore. “I will be looking to draft legislation requiring individuals born after a certain date to take boating education courses before going out on Oklahoma waters.

“This way, individuals who have already been boating for years will not be required to take the course, but for future generations, education will be required for everyone.

“We can over-regulate,” he said. “We've got to educate these people that are operating water vessels. They've got to be more educated.”

Requiring all boaters to wear life jackets whenever they are in a boat would be difficult to pass, Ownbey said. Children under 13 years of age are required to wear a life jacket only when a boat is underway. Boats must be equipped with life jackets for each person on board, but adults are not required to wear them.

“Below the Mason-Dixon Line, that's going to be a hard sell,” said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Maj. Mike Mize, with the patrol's marine enforcement division.

Earl Groves, Tulsa district chief of operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said each district is being asked to develop a pilot program requiring life jackets be worn on the water at corps lakes. Water safety is a major focus for the corps, he said, saying a pilot program done in another state showed that life jacket usage on boats increased from 5 percent to more than 60 percent.

“It's the right thing to do with life jackets,” he said.

During the past six years, about 100 people drowned on the Tulsa district's 23 lakes, Groves said. About six percent were wearing life jackets. Many of the drowning victims were involved in either boating accidents or jumped off a boat into the water.

“It happens so quick — you're lucky to save them,” Groves said.

Groves told a House of Representatives committee last week that opposition to mandatory life jackets use is similar to protests heard in Oklahoma 20 years ago, when lawmakers passed a law requiring people to wear seat belts. Vehicles have been equipped with seat belts for nearly 60 years and some motorists still resist wearing them, he said.

Boats are traveling faster than ever — he saw a 300-horsepower outboard motor earlier this month on Keystone Lake — in the same body of water with slower-moving watercraft, he said.

Outlawing beer on boats also would be met with much opposition, he said.

“Having a beer in a boat in Oklahoma is our culture and lifestyle — just do it responsibly,” Groves said.

Mize said a law passed last year lowered the legal limit for boat operators from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, matching the standard for drivers on roads. But the state doesn't have an alcohol-impaired penalty for boaters similar to one for motorists.

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