The controversial issue of online safe boating classes and testing has surfaced again in Connecticut.
Shot down twice before, a bill drafted by the Boating Division of the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection has been presented to legislators in Hartford. This new law would recognize at-home online training to be the equivalent of classroom training for both the state Boating Safety Certificate and Hunting (gun and bow hunting and safe trapping) Certificate.
When an online training proposal was first introduced in 2010, over 20 people testified against it and another 20 wrote letters saying it was not a good idea. In an apparent conflict of interest, the hearing officer charged with responding to the testimony was the same person who introduced the concept in the first place. The officer dismissed all of the testimony on a technicality and proceeded to present the bill unopposed. However, in Hartford, the bill faced stiff opposition from outspoken legislators who cited the beneficial effects of their own classroom-based training, and the proposal was dropped.
The next introduction of the concept tried to bypass the legislative review process by including an online course proposal as part of a minor regulation change for a small upstate lake, avoiding the previous scrutiny of the state Legislative Regulation Review Committee. This backdoor tactic was unearthed and killed before it could be included in the regulation changes.
Now, HR 6541 (http://www.cga.ct.gov/2013/TOB/H/2013HB-06541-R00-HB.htm) has been quickly run into the review process (just one week long), with the Environment Committee tasked to conduct a public hearing and forward the bill to the legislature. The hearing is scheduled for this morning in Hartford. This topic only came back to the public’s attention on March 1 by a “personal appeal” email for its support by a Connecticut DEEP Boating Division supervisor, allowing only days for submission of letters of support or opposition. The public comment window closes Monday.
As of Wednesday there were 15 letters in favor and 240 opposed. (Link to e-mails submitted to the committee: http://www.cga.ct.gov/asp/menu/CommDocTmyBillAllComm.asp?bill=HB-06541&doc_year=2013) Many people are scheduled to present a 3-minute testimony at the hearing, including the mother of one of the children who tragically died in the overloaded boat that capsized in Oyster Bay, Long Island, last July 4. She believes that online training is not enough to prevent another tragedy such as the one that cost her 7-year-old daughter’s life.
In New York, after this accident, Suffolk County passed legislation that all boaters must take a classroom safety course and obtain a safe boating certificate (regardless of past experience). “New York seems to be raising their boating education standards, while Connecticut is lowering theirs,” comments one member of the boating community.
So the real question is does an online course give the same training as a classroom course led by an experienced and certified instructor? Many states say yes, but the real proof is in the statistics gathered over time. The latest numbers (2011) actually show an alarming spike in boating fatalities. (Boating Fatalities Spike in 2011:
http://www.agflipbooks.com/books/book.aspx?bookid=259) Although the data do not show whether the operators had online training or not, these unsettling statistics are appearing at the same time that “industry experts” are claiming that online training is the same as classroom training. Many experienced boaters think: “This can’t be so. Someone is misreading the data!” Is there a correlation between online courses and the spike in fatalities?
The group that favors online training cites ease of scheduling and the convenience of no travel, potentially reaching a wider audience, appealing to a younger, more technically savvy generation and a source of potential revenue for the state. One advocate for online training actually wrote: “There is always a place for those who are old fashioned and prefer the setting of a classroom.”
Not everyone agrees.
Those opposing online training compare boater education to driver education, only with “open seas, Long Island Sound, lakes and rivers with and without rocky coastlines.” One person, objecting to the new law, wrote: “If you allow online training for Boater Education, why not allow online training for Drivers Education? Because your intelligence kicks in and knows instinctively you can't teach driving and rules of the road over the Internet!” Note that the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles now requires unlicensed adults and those from other states with expired licenses to take an 8-hour safe driving practice course at a Connecticut-licensed driving school.
One opponent wrote: “There is no reason to reinvent online training when a pool of highly qualified organizations and instructors already exist,” while many said, “No one can be sure who actually took the online test, or if they used a book/website for answers.” Some letters to the legislature called out for existing training to go further, so as to include on-the-water training as well as classroom training.
The most frequent comment from those opposing stated that online training only teaches you what is in the book and doesn’t expose you to learn from others in the class. Their objections note that online training keeps the students from learning from questions and answers, from the instructor’s experiences and “learn from my mistakes,” from teaching aids and a discussion of things that aren’t on the test, but “you need to know.”
One poignant comment was: “Tell me, I’ll forget,” “Show me, I’ll remember,” “Involve me, I’ll understand.” From this and many similar comments, the boating community really seems to be upset by this sudden move by the DEEP.
Since the legislators’ doors are open and they are keenly watching this bill, it will be very interesting to see how it plays out in the next week.
Rick Delfosse is a Coast Guard captain, US Sailing-certified instructor, Connecticut- and New York-certified safe boating instructor and a National Safe Boating Council close-quarters boat-handling instructor. He also conducts coastal cruising and boating skills seminars. The owner of a 43-foot pilothouse cutter and an Aquasport powerboat, he has extensive cruising and one-design, coastal and offshore racing experience. He recently attended an 8-hour gun safety course held in a classroom.