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From the Pilothouse-Educate Over Legislate

It is probably inevitable that stricter boating laws or mandated owner competency testing and licensing will come. It hasn't happened yet, but how can we avoid it?

There is growing evidence that many people who take to the water these days don't have sufficient training to properly operate a boat. It might be a shiny white motorcruiser running too fast and too close to weekend anglers, or a fellow luffing his sails aboard Blissful Ignorance as the sailboat heads for a well-charted shoal. It also might be a pair of sea kayakers paddling lazily across a ship channel, unaware that a tanker traveling heavy is on a course over top of them in the not too distant future. All are cause for concern.

Most trawler owners are experienced and responsible. But while radio protocol, anchoring technique and fuel dock etiquette may seem obvious, these are clearly not universal.

I am concerned that when "they" look at such negative trends, we will be forced into the tricky waters of increased laws and restrictions.

We've already seen such action. While I'm no fan of personal watercraft, are the actions of a few clowns reason enough to ban them completely on certain waterways? Apparently so.

That is not the solution in my opinion, and I'm concerned. Let me explain.

Perhaps it's easiest to parallel our situation to the automobile industry, which has seen its share of legislation in the last century.

Isn't it obvious that using seatbelts saves lives? So why must we legislate their use? Doesn't that seem odd?

In some states it's now a law to turn on headlights when driving in rain. How dense or uninvolved must one be not to grasp the essential connection behind weather-reduced visibility and visibility-improving headlights?

The list of similar regulations grows: motorcycle helmet laws, even laws against driving while using a cell phone, as so many have proven unable to do.

While it's true most people follow all of these laws without question, that's precisely my concern. Many never look beyond the law, or worse, believe themselves less accountable because the government has done the thinking for them. In my mind, laws let people off the hook mentally.

Need some examples? Ever driven behind someone who puts on a turn signal without so much as a glance out the window or into a mirror? A purely mechanical action, it has nothing to do with a calculated response to actual conditions. The person knows he or she is following the law, and is therefore blameless when his car cuts off another in a lane change. "What do you mean, did I see the other guy? I had my turn signal on!" Any actual contact between vehicles is an unfortunate "accident."

How about the fellow who drives precisely at the posted speed limit, usually in the middle lane, no matter what the flow of traffic around him. He's following the law, and righteously so, but is it any wonder that he has a history of being rear-ended? Family members believe him to be an unlucky, blameless victim.

Doing something because it makes sense, a deliberate choice among many, is far better than simply following a law, even if that law was drafted for all the right reasons. It is far more important to understand and accept accountability for one's action.

"I better slow down as we get near that small sailboat, or those people will get a heck of a roll from our wake." Or should "they" simply limit boat speed everywhere, and ban powerboats capable of high speed altogether? (Think I'm being silly? One country in Europe banned all motorcycles above a certain horsepower for precisely this reason.)

Legislation can never replace education, and legislating proper behavior on the water is as much a folly as expecting the justice system to make one honest and fair.

I wear a seatbelt because it keeps me safe, not because it is a law. I maintain situational awareness around me when driving a car or boat, and use a turn signal like a chart plotter; it's just one resource at my disposal. I don't solely rely on either.

For now, boating safety regulations lag far behind the automobile industry, but for how long?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know that a person who uses his head is a more competent skipper than one who simply follows rules resulting from increased legislation.

The land of the free can remain so only if we work together to encourage and teach our fellow boaters how it is done…and why.

I'd prefer to leave the laws ashore.

Bill Palatore