2013-08-02 / Columnists

Sullivan’s Court

By Keith Sullivan, Esq.

Given the recent media coverage of two tragic boating accidents on the NY waterways, I was asked by a neighbor to write a column addressing the basic laws that apply to boating. So while far from exhaustive, here it goes from a non-boating lawyer…

What I found most interesting in researching the recreational boating laws was that there is almost no licensing or certification requirement in New York in order to drive a boat. New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania each require some form of a boating safety certification and class before allowing anyone to operate a boat on their state’s waterways. New York determines the requirement based on the driver’s age. Children under the age of 10 may operate a boat only with direct supervision of a person over the age of 18. Children between the ages of 10 & 18 years old may only operate a boat with direct supervision of a person over the age of 18 or after successfully completing an approved boating safety course. Such an approved course of instruction includes an 8-hour classroom session and a proctored examination. Stop and read those two sentences again… now picture that… a 10 year old child in 4th or 5th grade, can navigate the crowded waterways alone after taking an 8-hour class! We give kids more instructions on how to swing a bat, catch a ball and run the bases before letting them do so in a 5th grade Little League game! Those 18 years of age and older automatically qualify to drive a boat without the need of completing the safety certification course. 70 percent of reported fatalities happened on boats where the operator had not received boating safety instruction.

Oddly enough, it seems that the easier device to maneuver, and arguably the device less dangerous to others, carries stricter licensing requirements in New York. Anyone operating a jet-ski or wave-runner, must be at least 14 years old, complete an approved course in boating safety or have on board someone at least 18 years of age who is the holder of an approved boating safety certificate.

Life vests save lives, thus it could be argued they should always be worn much like a seat-belt in a car. However, once again NY laws are choppy at best and are both seasonal and age-specific as to when the wearing of one is required. Children under the age of 12 must wear a life vest, unless they are on a boat that has a totally enclosed cabin. As of 2009, all people on a boat less than 21-feet in length are required to wear a life vest between November 1st and May 1st. The rationale behind this law is that accidents usually result in passengers being thrown overboard and the chance of survival in those months is diminished because the cold water causes hypothermia to set in much quicker. If you are using a wave-runner or being towed from a boat for water skiing, tubing, parasailing, etc., you must wear a life vest. Speaking of “towing,” any boat that is towing someone must have on board, in addition to the driver, an observer who is specifically charged with watching out for the person being towed. The observer must be at least 10 years of age.

Boating While Intoxicated exists and is the same legal standard as driving a car. No one may operate a boat while impaired or intoxicated either through the consumption of alcohol or drugs. A driver with a blood alcohol level of .08 is considered legally intoxicated. Just like in a car, if you are stopped for the suspicion of impaired operation and refuse to voluntarily submit to a breathalyzer, your privilege to operate will be immediately suspended. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents.

When on the navigable waterways the boat speed is limited to five mph when within 100 feet of the shore, a dock, pier, raft, float or an anchored boat. Otherwise, generally the speed limit is 45 mph during the daytime and 25 mph at nighttime. When no speed limit is posted, boats must be operated in such a fashion so as not to endanger others. A boat operator is always responsible for any damage caused by the boat’s wake.

I think nearly every boater violates this one…the noise emitted from the boat motor when moving shall not exceed 75 decibels. For perspective, audio charts list a flushing toilet and ringing phone at 75-80 decibels!

So enjoy the high seas, boat safely and smart and as they say in the squared circle, protect yourself —and your passengers and others on the waterways— at all times!

You can e-mail your questions for Keith Sullivan to SullivansCourt @gmail.com.

Keith Sullivan is a partner with Sullivan & Galleshaw, LLP, an adjunct law professor and a lecturer for the national bar exam. He is also a Deputy Commissioner for the NYS Athletic Commission. Keith can be seen providing legal analysis on various television networks such as FOX News, CNN, HLN, NBC and MSNBC.

Sullivan’s Court provides general legal information only, is not intended as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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