In 2002, the Coast Guard began mandating that children under 13 wear life jackets. The Coast Guard regulation applies on waterways under federal jurisdiction, mostly those whose shores touch more than one state. For Virginia, where most boating occurs on federal waters, that means a state law would not change much. Still, Virginia is unlikely to pass a life jacket law for children any time soon.
There were “a lot of political chips called in” in 2007, when Virginia managed to pass a mandatory boater education law, Dungan said, and boating safety advocates were asked to hold off on life jacket legislation.
Goddard and Newman are confident, however, that the reticence won’t last forever. It wasn’t that long ago that driving drunk was considered a personal choice that shouldn’t be regulated. Forty years ago, no state had a mandatory life jacket law.
“Society gradually gets it,” Newman said.
Selling Boater Education in Alabama
In 1994, Alabama passed a recreational boating law that 15 years later is still the strictest in the country. All boaters must have a license, which they can only get by passing a boating exam. No other state requires a license.
“In Alabama, before we passed the law, the water was kind of the last bastion of total lawlessness where you can kill without consequences,” said Grimsley, the former commissioner of the state agency that oversees boating.
It took two tragedies and three children dying to change that.
In May 1993, 4-year-old Lauren Archer was killed when a boater ran into the boat she was on with her parents. Her parents survived, but Lauren did not.
That August, 9-year-old Ashley Roberson and her 5-year-old sister Katy were killed in a similar accident. The impact split the Roberson’s boat almost in two, Grimsley said.
The two accidents convinced Grimsley that something had to be done. He used part of his salary to create and distribute a video about the accidents and the need for stronger boating laws. The video shows photos of the three children at birthday parties and family gatherings and includes emotional testimonies from parents and friends of the girls. Grimsley sent a copy to every member of the Alabama Legislature in December 1993, just before Christmas.
“These weren’t statistics that were dying on the water. These were children. These were human beings,” he said.
The next spring, the parents of the children filmed a series of TV commercials that appeared across the state. The commercials prompted a flood of letters — about 40,000 of them — to state legislators.
But convincing legislators was only part of the battle. Grimsley and other advocates of the law fought the boating industry for months. The industry viewed every person who failed the test as one less person who would buy a boat, Grimsley said.
A boating education requirement like the one the NTSB recommends would have been easier to pass, but Grimsley didn’t think it went far enough. Without a license, there’s no way to punish boaters for breaking the law.
Grimsley said he still considers the law one of the most important things he’s done in his life.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Those kids would be in the water saying, ‘Help me! Help me!’ I would just sit there and cry. I felt responsible,” he said. “There’s not a day that I won’t think about it.”
Sept. 26, 2010