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Environment committee approves proposed boater safety course, permits

Minnesota consistently ranks as one of the nation’s most active boating states, with about one registered boat for every six people, and with all that time on the water comes risk. The Department of Natural Resources says last year was the deadliest since 2005, as 18 people lost their lives in boating-related accidents and drownings.

A coalition of outdoor and industry groups would like to make boating in Minnesota safer, backing a proposal that would require state boat operators, with some exceptions, to take a mandatory safety course and receive a permit before leaving shore.

Sponsored by Rep. Erin Koegel (DFL-Spring Lake Park), HF3787 would create a watercraft operator’s permit that would be phased in over the next five years.

The House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee voted 18-1 to approve the bill, as modified by a delete-all amendment, Tuesday, referring it to the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee. The companion, SF3392, is sponsored by Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point) and awaits action by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee.

“What this bill does is establish a national approved and certified boater education safety course for all Minnesota boaters older than 12 years of age,” Koegel said. “… It would be phased in over five years, requiring any boat operator, born on or after Jan. 1, 1987, to complete the boater education.”

The DNR would be required to create a safety course for personal watercraft and watercraft operators, including a written test that could be taken online, and require rental businesses to administer a short boater safety exam to customers.

Adam Block, the DNR’s boating law administrator, said the state has added more than 16,000 motorized watercraft to its waterways in the past two years and that half the victims who died in boating-related accidents in 2021 were under the age of 40.

Watercraft operator permits would be phased in on this schedule:

  • effective July 1, 2024, for those born on or after July 1, 2003;
  • effective July 1, 2025, for those born on or after July 1, 1999;
  • effective July 1, 2026, for those born on or after July 1, 1995; and
  • effective July 1, 2027, for those born on or after July 1, 1987.

Shane Magnuson, who is in charge of water patrol for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, supports the bill, saying, “The date of 1987 will reach the date of people that we are most likely to deal with in an enforcement capacity.” He said it is obvious after even a short time on a busy lake that boats are less intuitive to operate than cars, motorcycles and other motorized vehicles.

“I’ve seen what happens when boaters do not have basic boating knowledge,” Magnuson said. “I’ve had to share with families that their loved one is gone, and we know some of these accidents were preventable.”

In a letter to the committee, the nation’s leading boat dealer and manufacturing associations joined with a group of Minnesota lake associations and boating businesses in support of the bill.

“The majority of states require some form of boater education, and while Minnesota requires an operator safety education course for every other motorized recreational product, it does not require such a course for boating,” they wrote. “We urge the committee to support this bill.”

They went on to say the proposal would create a nationally recognized education course with reciprocity for users; a proven way to dramatically improve boater safety; the opportunity to deliver key messages tailored for boaters; and greater awareness of aquatic invasive species.

Rep. Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley) asked how the program would be enforced, noting the difference between busy lakes in the metro area and less crowded waters in Greater Minnesota.

Koegel believes enforcement would be done as it is now with compliance checks conducted by law enforcement officials who routinely stop boaters to see if they have personal floatation devices or other needed safety equipment or licenses.

Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) said the amended version of the bill was one he could likely vote for, although he thinks further tweaks could be needed.

“It does look like there is quite a lot going on in this area,” he said. “We’ve obviously got a lot of new people out on the water so I can see there are some challenges there.”

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