Legislators Pushing For Boating Safety Changes After Summer Incidents; Bow Riding Regs Targeted

Legislators Pushing For Boating Safety Changes After Summer Incidents; Bow Riding Regs Targeted
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OCEAN CITY — In the wake of several serious boating accidents in the resort last summer, including a fatal propeller strike that claimed the life of a child in August, Delegate Mary Beth Carozza this week fired off a letter to state boating officials urging them to strongly consider enhanced regulations for bow-riding specifically and more stringent boat rental regulations in general.

After a run of serious boating accidents last summer, a coalition of professional bay captains initiated a push for tighter regulations and standards for the rental industry. There were three serious incidents involving rented pontoon boats in the bays around Ocean City in the span of about three weeks in August, including a fatal accident involving a nine-year-old child who fell off a boat while bow-riding, prompting local bay captains to push of increased safety measures and better training for boat renters before they are simply handed the keys and sent out on the water.

The same issues have existed for years, but have been exacerbated this year in the wake of several serious boating injuries. While the timing for the boat captains’ push for increased regulations coincided with the fatal accident involving a child, that incident alone wasn’t the catalyst for the change.

Ocean City and the Lower Shore’s delegation in Annapolis, including Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) and Senator Jim Mathias (D-38), have taken notice of the bay captains’ efforts for tighter regulations and have made similar pushes of their own for state officials to tighten boating regulations.

With the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Boat Act Advisory Committee set to meet this month to consider tighter regulations on bow-riding and stronger regulations on the rental boat industry, Carozza sent a letter on Tuesday urging the committee to consider the proposed changes on the table.

“In light of the serious boating accidents that occurred in local waters this past season, including the death of a child, there is a sense of urgency to move forward with the revised regulations and put them into effect as soon as possible,” the letter reads.

The state’s Boat Act Advisory Committee is scheduled to review proposed changes to the state code regarding bow-riding. The changes were promulgated by the request from local professional bay boat captains in concert with the Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) for example.

“The Natural Resources Police proposed regulation change would define bow-riding on a boat,” the letter reads. “This would specify bow riding on a boat as a separate offense. Currently, bow riding is subject to a citation for operating a boat in a negligent manner, but bow riding is not specified.”

Carozza said she has been working closely with the local captains and the NRP on formulating stronger regulations regarding bow-riding. It should be noted boat rental industry leaders have been included in those discussions.

“It should be noted that the Natural Resources Police, local boat captains and operators of boat and personal watercraft rentals believe and agree that the current boat safety regulations pertaining to negligent operations on a boat should be clarified and strengthened to identify bow-riding as dangerous,” the letter reads. “I am encouraged that the proposed regulations have been discussed with industry professionals and addresses their observations and experiences on the water. In light of the serious boating accidents that occurred in local waters this past season, including the death of a child, there is a sense of urgency.”

While Carozza’s letter to the committee specifically addresses the bow-riding issue, it also seeks a broader boating public safety message comparable to the successful pedestrian safety public service campaign launched in the resort in recent years.

“Along with strengthening the current bow-riding regulation, improving boat safety will depend on a robust public communications strategy to inform and educate Maryland residents and visitors of the proper operation of boats and personal watercraft rentals,” the letter reads. “Like the successful ‘Save Yourself’ pedestrian safety campaign with the crab lifeguard in Ocean City, Md. families and visitors would benefit from a similar boat safety campaign which could include public service announcements, social media and visual coverage in key public locations.”

Carozza’s letter also seeks tighter standards for boat renters in the resort and across the state. To be sure, there are plenty of rock solid rental operators who provide extensive training and guidance to renters, but there are also an in-kind number of operators who simply hand over the keys and send weekend warriors out on the crowded bays with little more than a quick safety briefing.

“Finally, I also wanted to let you know of my interest for possible future changes to the current boat education requirements,” the letter reads. “I understand the Natural Resources Police along with their Safety Education Section have begun to work with livery operators statewide on adopting a uniform approach to boat and personal watercraft renter examinations in an effort to improve overall safety on our waters. I am looking forward to hearing more from DNR officials on the progress being made in the area of strengthening Maryland’s boat education requirements.”

In October, Mathias expressed similar sentiments as Carozza outlined in her letter to the DNR committee.

“The charter captains reached out to us with an array of things. They were specifically interested in the bow-riding issue, but they have a list of concerns in a larger sense about the training and preparation given to the boaters. They put together a whole list of concerns and recommendations and now that list is in front of the people who can affect a change if it’s warranted,” Mathias said. “In the years I’ve been able to serve publicly, I have always tried to make sure a tragic loss is not in vain. If we discuss these recommendations with all of the stakeholders and determine we need to put forth legislation, we’re ready to do that. We need the eyes and ears of the boat captains, the eyes and ears of the recreational boaters, the Coast Guard and everyone else with a stake in this. We also need to make sure we include a conversation with the rental industry because they are a big part of this.”

Mathias added NRP and the Coast Guard can issue citations when they observe bow-riding under broader regulations, but there is currently no law specific to bow-riding.

“This has been an observation for some time,” he said. “They can be cited for reckless operation or reckless endangerment, but there is no legislation on the books governing bow-riding. The DNR secretary told me it has been attempted in years past, but it keeps getting deferred because it’s considered an operational issue.”

There is precedent in other states for Maryland to investigate. For example, Connecticut law states, “operators may not allow passengers to sit or stand on the bow or gunwale of open-bow baots while underway; sit or stand on the bow or gunwale of a boat with a closed bow while underway, unless the boat is equipped with handrails and all passengers are inward of the handrail; and hang any portion of their body over the bow or gunwale or beyond the handrail, if operating at a greater than ‘slow-no-wake speed.’”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.