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California Moves To Require Boat Licenses Due To Safety Concerns


Summer is here, and that means swimming, beaches and boats. Most states require recreational motorboat operators to have licenses. A few don't. California, with one of the longest coastlines and lots of lakes and rivers, is one of them. As Claire Trageser from member station KPBS in San Diego reports, that's about to change.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: It's a cool, sunny day as 17-year-old Calvin Pedroli walks down a dock and climbs into a small motorboat. He seems to know just what he's doing as he pulls up the throttle and revs the engine.

CALVIN PEDROLI: Mine is a low idle, so I have to turn it on and then put this throttle up.

TRAGESER: He steers the boat out of the harbor and then kicks up the speed. Pedroli has been driving boats since he was in elementary school, much longer than he's been able to drive.

PEDROLI: It's definitely different than driving a car because you have to think about drift because when you turn, it's going to have the boat slide a little bit.

TRAGESER: In January, a new California law will require everyone under 20 who drives a boat with a motor to get a license. The law will gradually phase in to include all boaters by 2025. That will leave only Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming without any requirements for boating licenses.

BILL MONNING: The problem is, people go out on a waterway, and they think, you know, they're on vacation.

TRAGESER: The man who wrote the law is California State Senator Bill Monning.

MONNING: They're relaxing. Sometimes they're drinking alcohol. And they just don't associate potential dangers with being on vacation.

TRAGESER: Last year, California had a fairly low boat accident fatality rate, just under seven deaths per 100,000 registered boats. But it did have more boat accidents than any other state except for Florida. Monning says the license will ensure people get some education before taking a boat on the water. Boaters will have to take a class either in person or online and then pass a written test. Licenses will cost $10 and last a lifetime.

BILL ANDERSEN: So the class today is about boating safely. It covers the real...

TRAGESER: On a recent Saturday morning, a group of boating students is preparing for the licensing exam. The teacher, Bill Andersen, says it's scary to think you can drive a boat without any training.

ANDERSEN: If you want to drive a car, you have to have classroom instruction and take a test. You have to get hours behind the wheel, and you have to drive it for a performance test.

TRAGESER: And boating is more complicated than driving, he says.

ANDERSEN: There's no turn signals and highways on the water.

TRAGESER: The new law does have a hole in it. If you own a boat, you'll need a license - however, not if you rent a boat.

ANDY KURTZ: So we're gearing up for one of the busiest weekends of the year.

TRAGESER: Andy Kurtz strides down the dock at his boat rental shop. He's glad the new law excludes renters because that would hurt the spontaneity of renting a boat on vacation. But he thinks rental shops should have to give safety briefings.

KURTZ: I go out on the bay. I go out on the ocean with my friends and with my family. And it would be nice to know that everybody is at least doing the minimum.

TRAGESER: Seventeen-year-old Calvin Pedroli steers his motorboat back to the dock.

PEDROLI: Definitely starting it's kind of scary knowing that you have full control of a prop in the back and you're on the water.

TRAGESER: But after learning from his family, he's sure he'll ace the test to get his boating license.

PEDROLI: I'm always on the water, so I'm definitely comfortable now.

TRAGESER: And the new law is designed to help even rookie boaters feel more comfortable when they take the helm. For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POLYVERSAL SOULS' "SAD NILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claire Trageser

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