Public Comment

Commentary: The Reckless Jetski Driver Protection Act

By Paul Kamen
Tuesday May 08, 2007

The official title is California Assembly Bill AB 1458, also known as the Boater Safety Education Bill now working its way through the various legislative committees in Sacramento. But if you look carefully at what it will do and who it will affect, you might be tempted to give it a different name. 

AB 1458 began life in 2006 when the Department of Boating and Waterways published a study recommending mandatory boater education for powerboaters, and proposed language for the legislation. 

Forty-six states have already passed mandatory boater education laws in some form. In nearly all of these states, only the operators of powerboats with over 15 HP are required to carry a license or certificate to prove they have passed a basic boating safety course. In California’s version, there would be a gradual phase in affecting younger boat operators first. The course and test would be inexpensive and they would be available online. 

So far so good, but when industry lobbyists and “stakeholders” got through with this proposal, the bill was left with a giant loophole for rental boats, including rental PWCs (“PWC” is for personal watercraft, or “Jetski” in the incorrect vernacular.) As now drafted, boat renters would be forever exempt from nearly all of the education and certification requirements called for by AB 1458. All a renter would have to do is submit to an oral briefing by the rental operator, view a map, sign a form, and be issued a temporary California Boat Operator Certificate good for 30 days. What are they smoking? PWC operation is the most dangerous form of boating known, and rentals are the worst of the worst. DBW’s own statistics put the risk of a serious accident per hour of PWC operation at 24 times the risk of serious accident in a kayak or canoe. 

But the industry lobbyists—and RBOC (Recreational Boaters of California) seems to be going along with them—insist that the only acceptable boating education law is one that continues to allow walk-up customers with no prior boating experience to rent a PWC or other fast powerboat on the spot. 

Not only that, but these same lobbyists have repeatedly attempted to extend the reach of AB 1458 so that it would also apply to small sailing dinghies, kayaks, canoes, rowing shells and even river rafts. Yes, us kayakers really need to learn about fire extinguishers, fuel vapor explosions, propeller contact injury and water skiing rules. If the industry lobbyists and RBOC have their way, you will need a Boat Operator Certificate to paddle a safe-as-a-house sit-on-top kayak around a protected lagoon. You will not be able to legally let your friends try it out unless they too take the course, pass the test, pay the fee and carry the certificate. But if they want to rent a Jetski and go 50 knots right next to the local swimming area, that will be just fine and dandy with the State of California as along as they are briefed and checked out by the same company that’s renting them the machine. No oversight or verification by an objective agency required, thank you. 

This is about like letting car rental companies issue temporary drivers licenses to new drivers renting cars. And applying the certification requirements to kayakers is about like making pedestrians get drivers licenses to cross the street. But that’s how things work in Sacramento. 

The industry is hurting, they see kayaks as the only growth sector, and if the powerboat business is going to take a regulatory hit then by gosh those kayak dealers are going to take the same hit before they steal any more market share that rightfully belongs to the thrillcraft. 

Of course, if anyone really wanted to make California waterways safer, diverting prospective powerboat buyers and renters to non-motorized forms of boating is exactly what they would advocate. By the DBW stats, switching from a PWC to a kayak reduces risk of a serious accident by 96 percent. 

Can education help also? Probably, but only by small increments. California’s boating fatality rate over the last five years is 5.46 per 100,000 registered boats. In all the states that have had mandatory boating education laws for 20 years or more, the accident rate is 4.03 per 100,000 registered boats. This is a risk reduction of 26 percent. Florida, another state with a large year-round boating population and a mix of inland and open water boating similar to California’s, has a higher fatality rate (6.41) despite implementing a mandatory program in 1991. 

It’s not hard to understand where the industry is coming from, but why is RBOC on the side of restrictive legislation? They have a long tradition of fighting off nearly everything that inhibits boating in any way, shape or form, from holding tanks to fuel tax. Perhaps they are concerned that something much worse will come from the federal level, and want to get this passed now on their own lenient terms. 

As someone in the business of reconstructing boating accidents, I have nothing to fear from AB 1458. 


Paul Kamen is a naval architect who serves on the Berkeley Waterfront Commission.