Everything You Need To Know About California’s New Boater Safety Bill


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On September 18, 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill No. 941 which, by 2018, will require California boaters (including PWC operators) to pass a safety course and obtain a vessel operator card.

According to SB 941 legislation, the new vessel operator cards will be issued to California residents upon passing an examination, for a fee of $30, and will be “valid for the life of the person to whom it is issued.” After the January 1, 2018 deadline, boaters/riders cited in violation of the requirement will be subjected to a $100 initial fine and ordered to immediately obtain a valid vessel operator card. Subsequent violations incur progressively stiffer penalties – up to $500 on the third citation.

In its first year, only first-time boaters 20 years of age and younger will be required to possess the certification. However an ascending schedule will be implemented in years following that will eventually require all boaters, regardless of age, to acquire an operator card by January 1, 2025.

Fortunately, those operating a rental vessel, competing in an organized race event, or under direct supervision of a vessel card-carrying adult, need not obtain the operator card. Further, those visiting from other states or foreign countries (for a maximum of 60 or 90 days, respectively) are also exempt, provided they meet the applicable requirements, if any, of their home state or country.

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Until now, California stood as one of only five states (including Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming) that did not require any certification or licensing to operate a motor-driven watercraft; any person age twelve or older could legally operate a boat or personal watercraft in California’s waterways. Recent support from select law enforcement agencies, private business owners, and pro-regulation coverage from news agencies in Northern California (statistically the most dangerous of California’s waters) lent momentum to the bill originally introduced in February by Senators Bill Monning and Mark DeSaulnier.

Those lobbying for more stringent boating regulations have cited recent U.S. Coast Guard data showing California as the nation’s number two most dangerous state for boaters, with about 2,775 boating accidents between 2007 and 2012, placing behind Florida’s 3,800-plus incidents. According to data from the California Division of Boating and Waterways (published in an investigative article on NBCBayArea.com), the vast majority of these collisions are caused by operators not paying attention and lack of education, compared to the fraction of such incidents caused by alcohol or drug use.

Opposition to stricter regulations has been strong in years past, with former California Governor Gray Davis vetoing a very similar bill in 1999, arguing that “there may well be reasonable measures we can adopt to enhance the safety of boat operators, but unfortunately this bill will not accomplish that goal. There is little evidence that a written test alone will improve the piloting skills of motor boat operators or reduce boating accidents. Until such evidence is brought forth, I do not believe it is appropriate to require millions of Californians who enjoy boating as recreation to run the gauntlet of yet another government bureaucracy to obtain licenses to pilot their boats.”

As the 2018 deadline draws near, California residents can expect to receive literature from the state with information on obtaining the vessel operator card. Examinations are expected to be offered both in-person through approved course providers, and (thankfully) via Internet through the division’s website.

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Justin Stannard

A Southern California native, Justin strives to take full advantage of the local mountains, lakes, deserts and Pacific Ocean whenever possible. You can usually find him riding single track on his mountain bike, running a buoy course on an SX-R, or roosting a motocross track on his KX250F.

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