Backers resurrect tales of those lost to push for stricter water safety law

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2000

Ghosts of fishermen, little girls and old friends haunted the state House on Wednesday.

They gathered there during debate over House Bill 108, a boating-safety measure, which was approved on a 34-5 vote. Before the vote, a handful of lawmakers related tales of people - friends and strangers - who lost their lives in the water.

The measure's sponsor and shepherd, Rep. Bill Hudson, said it is the most important legislation he's ever introduced at the Capitol. Speaking for the measure, the Juneau Republican recalled two rescue attempts he was involved with on the Columbia River while he was with the U.S. Coast Guard.

The first tale involved the death of a little girl snatched by the river's current. The second was of a successful rescue of a second little girl a year later. The first girl wasn't wearing a life jacket. The second girl was.

``I have seen too many people tragically lost at sea,'' Hudson said.

Under the measure, those 13 and under would be required to wear life jackets while boating. Owners of motorized recreational boats would be required to register with the state at a cost of $24 per three years.

After a year, about $600,000 of registration fees, plus close to $600,000 in federal funds, would pay for administrative costs, plus boating safety equipment and programs, Hudson said.

Alaska's boating death rate is about 10 times the national average, Hudson said, with 83 Alaskans losing their lives in the water in the last three years. Of the 56 states and U.S. territories, 55 have taken over boating safety enforcement from the federal government. In many of those places, boating fatalities have been halved, he said.

Under the current version of the bill, boats would be required to carry a set of safety equipment, though the requirements would vary depending on the boat. Items such as fire extinguishers, flotation devices, noise makers and distress signals would be needed, along with design features such as proper ventilation.

A provision that would have required the registration of the 30,000 or so kayaks and canoes in the state was deleted Monday after House members approved an amendment offered by Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican. He said he didn't want to force people to register their human-powered watercraft. Registration of such boats is now optional under Hudson's bill.

Mulder said he'd rather see the state buying and supplying life jackets for boaters. That, he said, would save more lives more quickly than an education program would. However, he voted for the measure, saying its intent was worth the price.

Rep. Reggie Joule, a Kotzebue Democrat, said he was slightly concerned about the availability of registration offices in the Bush and the potential that education programs may not reach the scattered villages of rural Alaska. However, he also supported the measure.

Those voting against the bill didn't like the bureaucracy that would come with four more state employees or the potential that enforcement of boating safety regulations would be increased.

Rep. Scott Ogan, a Palmer Republican, opposed the measure because he thought enforcement of safety regulations could be used selectively by enforcement officials and that the bill didn't guarantee lives would be saved.

Hudson said the bill actually adds a probable cause provision to state law that doesn't currently exist. That provision, he said, bolsters boaters' rights because the Coast Guard doesn't currently need a reason before checking a boat's safety.

The measure now goes to the Senate. Hudson said he's been assured the measure will be sent to two Senate committees - resources and finance. He said there'll likely be opposition from some Southcentral legislators who've focused on the regulation side of the measure rather than the safety side.

``I'm optimistic that if we have a legitimate chance to present the bill, we should get it to the floor of the Senate and get it passed this year,'' Hudson said.

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