Last year, the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation set up a booth at a boat show, asking boating enthusiasts to take a 10-question quiz on basic boating safety.
Of 750 people who took the quiz, two answered all the questions correctly. The average score was only 5.3 correct answers.
"That should give us cause for concern," said Rep. Lorraine Pace, R-Logan, who is pushing a bill that would require mandatory testing and licensing for anyone operating a watercraft with more than 10 horsepower.
The Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee narrowly approved Pace's bill Wednesday, but not without some serious reservations, particularly about provisions in the bill that would make it so that those busted for boating while intoxicated could also lose their automobile driving privileges.
Many on the overwhelmingly conservative committee, while adamantly opposed to drunken boaters, were philosophically opposed to the idea of more and more state licensing. "It's getting to the point we need a license to walk down the street," quipped Rep. Craig Buttars, R-Lewiston.
The bill, with its two-pronged intent of enhancing boating safety and deterring drunks from operating boats, would be the first of its kind in the nation, said Ted Woolley, who directs Utah's boating safety program for the Division of State Parks.
Three states require boaters to have licenses, and 23 states mandate safety education before operating a watercraft. But none has gone so far as to require a boating license that is directly tied to a driver's license and which would tie boating-under-the-influence offenses directly to drunken-driving laws.
Pace told the committee other states want to pass similar legislation, but they are watching Utah test the waters before jumping in themselves.
Woolley said there were 13 boating fatalities last year, and at that rate another 34 people will die by the time licensing provisions take effect in 2007.
"Maybe the time has come," said Rep. Michael Styler, R-Delta, whose neighbor lost a son in a boating accident. "We are losing people needlessly to stupid accidents."
But Rep. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, questioned whether state licensing of boaters was good public policy. "Should we make everyone subject to licensure because of the bad judgment of a few?" he said.
The debate included emotional testimony from a woman who lost her fiance in an alcohol-related boating accident and from the victim's mother. The victim, a passenger in a boat of young people who had been partying, was killed while night boating on Jordanelle Reservoir when their speeding boat struck a sand bar and flipped.
Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, acknowledged the grief of those affected by the accident but questioned "how many classes do we need to know that drinking and speeding in the dark is not a good thing?"
The bill is part of a package of drunken-driving legislation being pushed by the governor's Council on Driving Under the Influence, chaired by Lt. Gov. Olene Walker.
Nationally, about 8 percent of boating accidents are alcohol-related, but Pace said the Utah rate is much higher, about 30 to 35 percent.
The bill was passed out of committee by one vote in the Senate and two votes in the House. The Rules Committee will now decide whether the bill goes directly to the House floor when the session opens Jan. 21 or whether it will be assigned to another committee for further debate.
Under provisions of the bill, boaters would pay $5 and take a test administered by the Drivers License Division. If they pass, their driver's licenses would indicate they are permitted to operate watercraft, much the same way motorcyclists' driver's licenses indicate they are allowed to drive motorcycles. Unlike motorcycles, boaters will not have to take a performance test demonstrating they can actually operate a boat safely. That, Woolley said, would cost too much to administer. The minimum age for a boating license would be 16, just as it is for cars.
A point system tallying boating violations could count against your car driving privileges as well.
There are currently about 79,000 watercraft registered in the state, with another 2,200 added to the total each year. "We already have safe boaters out there. We just don't have enough of them," Pace said.
Added Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, it costs a lot of money to be a boater, and it is not unreasonable to ask people to be educated about safety.
"A little more responsibility is not inappropriate," he said.