Bill to strengthen boater education requirement advancing at SC State House

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Published: Apr. 6, 2023 at 6:31 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In South Carolina, you need the training to drive a car, operate a forklift, and even to braid someone’s hair for money.

But most people who get behind the wheel on the state’s waters are not required to have any boater education or training.

Boating safety advocates are hoping to see that change in time for the summer.

“It means everything to me,” Morgan Kiser of Chapin said. “I want to honor my father and other families who have lost their loved ones, and I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.”

One night in September of 2019 is why Kiser has dedicated her days since then to strengthening South Carolina’s boating law.

“I was involved in a tragic boating crash. My father was killed in front of me, and my mother lost her leg. I had to take my dress off of me and tie it around her leg as a tourniquet. It was really just horrifying. It’s life-altering,” she said.

It happened on Lake Murray, where Randall and Karen Smith also lost their 11-year-old son, Drew, in a 1997 crash they say was caused by a drunk boater.

“If you have lost a son, you tell me how urgent it is,” Karen said.

“It can’t get passed fast enough,” Randall added.

The Smiths and Kiser were at the State House on Thursday, urging members of a House Judiciary subcommittee to advance a bill that would impose additional training requirements on South Carolina boaters, aimed at making waters safer and saving lives. The subcommittee voted 5-0 to give the bill a favorable report as it next awaits consideration by the full House Judiciary Committee.

South Carolina currently requires anyone younger than 16 to complete a boater education course to operate vessels of 15 horsepower and greater — most boats and personal watercraft, like jet skis — by themselves. Adults do not need to have any training or education to get behind the wheel.

S.96, which the state Senate passed unanimously this year, would require anyone born after July 1, 2007, to take a boater education course to operate vessels of 10 horsepower and more by themselves.

This includes boat rentals as well, and people who have completed this course in other states would have reciprocity in South Carolina.

“It’s not going to affect the boater that’s been out there for 30 years, driving his boat and saying, ‘Now I’ve got to take a test,’” Rep. Chris Wooten, a Republican who represents part of Lake Murray and is sponsoring the House companion to the Senate bill, said Thursday. “It’ll continually graduate until everybody in South Carolina would have to have boater education.”

There were 170 boat crashes across South Carolina last year, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Excessive speed, operator inattention, and operator inexperience were among the four most frequent causes, along with weather, and each of them led to at least one death last year.

Neighboring states already have mandates in place that are similar to what South Carolina would impose under this bill.

Kiser points to states like Alabama, where the number of boating fatalities dropped by 40 after the state instituted stronger training requirements in 1999.

“If we can save as many lives as they saved in Alabama when they passed the legislation, that would be amazing,” she said. “If we can save just one life, I mean, just think about it.”

This bill still needs to clear two big votes — to advance out of the House Judiciary Committee and then pass the full House of Representatives — to reach the governor.

If that happens within about the next month, before the legislative session ends, then these new requirements would go into effect on July 1.

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