Seated between two mothers who lost children in boating accidents, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone signed a bill Thursday afternoon that will require boat operators in the county to complete a safety course.
The law will take effect one year after it is filed with the state so boaters will essentially have until the start of the 2014 boating season to take a course, which will be available through several organizations, including the U.S. Coast Guard.
"This is common sense legislation that many will say is long overdue," the bill's sponsor, Legis. Steve Stern, D-Dix Hills, said during a press conference before the bill's signing on the water's edge at Timber Point Country Club in Great River. "I know that it will prevent tragedies in the future."
The bill was signed following a deadly summer on Long Island's waterways. Lisa Gaines, whose 7-year-old daughter Victoria drowned along with two other children in July when the powerboat they were riding in capsized in the waters off Oyster Bay, sat next to Bellone as he inked Suffolk's Safer Waterways Act.
"We have reached this point unfortunately because of the tragedies that have occurred on our waterways," Bellone said before he signed what he called "historic boating safety legislation," the first of its kind in the state.
"For too long, we have assumed and believed that somehow our waterways are these safe regions unlike roads or operating a motor vehicle," he said.
According to the Coast Guard, 70 percent of boating accidents are caused by operator errors. About half of the states in the country currently have some form of a boater education law. In New York, only those operating personal watercrafts have to take a class. Boat operators 18 and older, however, currently face no such restrictions.
Gaines said she wanted Suffolk's law in place before the next boating season, but with an estimated 75,000-100,000 boaters now required to take a course, Stern said it would be a "tremendous challenge" to get all of those boaters safety course certificates withing a year.
Stern, however, said he believed there were enough resources–with several organizations yet to be identified that can offer courses–to get the training done before the weather warms up in 2014. Online courses are a possibility if they meet certain standards, Stern said.
County officials said they hoped the bill's signing would spur other municipalities, including the state, to act as the requirements in the bill only apply to Suffolk County residents and not those who may venture into local waters from out of the area.
State Sen. Charles Fuschillo, R-Merrick, has introduced similar legislation at the state level calling for mandated safety courses, as well as stiffer penalties for boating under the influence. Those bills are currently in committee and if passed next year when the Senate is back in session, the safety course law would then be phased in over two years.
Once Suffolk's law is in effect, boat operators who cannot produce a safety course certificate will face a fine of up to $250 for a first offense and up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison upon a third offense.
"My family and I have waited seven years for laws such as this to go into place and we cannot be more thrilled," said Gina Lieneck, whose 11-year-old daughter Brianna was killed in a boat crash in the Great South Bay in 2005.
"After our daughter was tragically taken from us, it opened my eyes to all of the changes that needed to be made to make the waterways safer," said Lieneck, of Deer Park. "Today is the first step in ensuring the safety of all boaters on the water."