At the funeral last October for 7-year-old Sophia Baechler, who died of carbon monoxide poisoning aboard the family’s boat, the girl’s parents asked Minnesota state Sen. Melisa Franzen to do something to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Franzen, D-Edina, readily agreed and began to develop a bill, eventually working with the state Department of Natural Resources, the American Boat and Yacht Council and the National Marine Manufacturers Association as the state Senate sponsor of what came to be known as “Sophia’s Law.”
The measure, which will require carbon monoxide detection systems on certain recreational powerboats, cleared the legislature in May as part of a much larger bill. Gov. Mark Dayton signed it into law.
As of May 1, 2017, CO detection systems will be mandatory in Minnesota on any powerboat that has an enclosed accommodation compartment. Additionally, no new powerboat with such a compartment can be offered for sale in the state after that date unless it is equipped with a CO detection system.
“It’s a requirement that’s not unreasonable because it can save your life,” Franzen says.
Franzen says Minnesota is the first state in the country to adopt a CO detection system requirement. She says it will affect 133,000 of the state’s 808,000 registered boats.
The definition of enclosed accommodation compartment in the new law aligns with the standards of the American Boat and Yacht Council: a contiguous enclosed space surrounded by a boat structure that has designated sleeping accommodations, a galley area with a sink, and a head. The new law’s definition of a CO detection system also is in line with the ABYC standard.
Neither of those developments occurred by accident. Franzen says she consulted with the ABYC and the NMMA because lawmakers wanted a bill that would be strong but could be applied practically and be enforced.
“We didn’t want to adopt something that was not accepted and is not easily complied with,” she says.
ABYC president John Adey says he was pleased with the way the bill developed and the cooperation the standard-setting group received from Franzen and other legislators.
“It’s the perfect template for the way states should consider new laws when it comes to recreational boating,” he says.
Adey says Minnesota lawmakers were not previously aware that the ABYC had developed equipment and installation standards for CO detectors on boats.
He says the resulting law is “much better than I expected.” Of Franzen, Adey says, “She was terrific. She was open to everything we had to say.”
“This new Minnesota law takes reasonable steps to help boaters prevent tragedies that occur because of carbon monoxide exposure,” says Ron Sarver, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. “I can easily see other states will adopt similar measures to combat carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Franzen says the bill had bipartisan sponsorship. State Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, led the effort in the House.
Sophia’s death occurred during an outing on the family’s 28-foot 1984 Carver Riviera on Lake Minnetonka last October.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune said there was a hole in the exhaust pipe in the boat’s cabin, where she was resting. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office told the newspaper the hole was beneath the mattress area in the lower cabin area and probably was caused by animals chewing through the pipe.
The newspaper said CO poisoning fatalities from a boat had occurred only twice in Minnesota during the previous eight years. Toxic and odorless, the gas can build up because of an idling engine, a generator or a faulty exhaust system.
Franzen says all nine people aboard — Sophia, four other children and four adults — developed CO poisoning that day, although only Sophia died.
She says one of the things lawmakers will consider is working with CO detector makers on devices that would show the amount of the toxic gas aboard a boat rather than simply sounding an alarm when it reaches life-threatening levels.
The new law will require CO poisoning warning labels in the aft reboarding area, galley and steering station of all boats that are gasoline-powered and have enclosed occupancy compartments. The state DNR will mail the labels and information about the requirements to owners of boats 19 feet and larger during the first year of the law and will “highlight the new requirements on the watercraft renewal reminder postcard for three consecutive three-year license cycles and in the Minnesota Boating Guide,” the statute says.
Dealers will be required to ensure that the warning labels are affixed to boats before sales are completed.
The law also will require that all state-sponsored boating safety courses and all safety courses that require state approval provide information about the dangers of being overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning on a boat and how to prevent it.
Boaters who don’t comply with the new law initially will receive a warning. Subsequent violations will be considered a petty misdemeanor and trigger a fine.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.