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California gets tough with youthful boaters

Patrick McCartney

California’s new law that raises the age of unassisted boat rides to 16 may save lives, but is unlikely to make much of a difference in Lake Tahoe’s boating industry.

That’s the conclusion of law enforcement officials and rental companies at Lake Tahoe, who are uniformly supportive of the new rule. Most of Lake Tahoe rental firms already require boat operators to be at least 16.

“Up to this point, most of our rules were tougher than the state law,” said Bob Hassett of Action Watersports of South Lake Tahoe and Incline Village. “The new law is very positive for the whole industry; it will help minimize incidents in the future.”

The bill was prompted by an increase in the number of boating accidents involving youthful drivers, said David Johnson, a spokesman for the California Department of Boating and Waterways.

“The accident rate for operators under 18 increased by 269 percent from 1980 to 1996,” Johnson said. “During the same period, the accident rate for adults increased only 20 percent.”

Before passage of the bill last year, minors as young as 12 could operate boats and personal watercraft without supervision in California. The new law, which became effective Jan. 1, increases the minimum age to 16, but still allows operators as young as 12 if accompanied by a responsible party who is 18 or older.

The rule will apply to just the California side of Lake Tahoe. The state boundary with Nevada runs from the Cal Neva Resort parking tower on the North Shore to about Ski Run Boulevard on the South Shore.

In Nevada, the minimum age for boat operators remains at 12, since the state legislature defeated a proposal to lower the age in 1991, said Fred Messmann, the state’s boating law administrator.

Messmann said Nevada authorities won’t enforce the lower age on their side of the lake, since each state only enforces those laws that are the same in both states.

“But, if someone under 16 is stopped on the California side, they’re in trouble,” Messmann said.

Chief Roland McKinnon of Lake Tahoe’s U.S. Coast Guard Station said the number of youthful operators at Lake Tahoe has not been a big problem, but added that the new law should reduce accidents.

“I always felt uncomfortable about a 12-year-old taking a boat out on the lake,” McKinnon said. “Boats are somewhat more dangerous than cars because they have no brakes.”

Cmdr. Brad Bennett of the South Lake Tahoe Police Department applauded the new age requirement as a “good move,” but said it is unlikely to have much impact at Lake Tahoe.

“It’s not a major problem here, because most of those who rent boats out up here already have their own age limit,” said Bennett, who supervises the city’s lake patrol in the summer.

Representatives of several rental companies confirmed Bennett’s evaluation.

“We don’t rent to people under 16,” said Jason Mooney of Ski Run Boat Co.

In addition, Mooney said, the rental company advises personal watercraft renters to stay at least 400 feet away from other boats. That’s a more restrictive guideline than another new California law, which prohibits watercraft from coming within 100 feet of another boat to jump its wake.

“But, once they’re out there on their own, half the time they ignore the rules,” Mooney said.

Although not bound by the California law, marinas on Lake Tahoe’s Nevada shore also adhere to a 16-year-old minimum age as well, said Frank Forvilly of the Round Hill Pines Beach Resort.

“We don’t want the headache,” Forvilly said.

In California, lawmakers were concerned about the accident rate for youths, almost all of which are with personal watercraft, said Johnson of the Department of Boating and Waterways.

“The difficult thing is, the industry keeps ratcheting up the speeds of the personal watercraft,” Johnson said. “Top speeds used to be 40 mph, and now the top speed is 55 mph. For someone who doesn’t have much experience, that’s an invitation to disaster.”


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