September 26, 2008

Boating Laws Need Fresh Look

Now that the verdicts - or lack thereof - in the Robert LaPointe trial are known, momentum from the two-week trial should flow through lawmakers into a new review of Maine's boating laws.

A hung jury in the LaPointe case failed to settle whether he is guilty or innocent of manslaughter.

Conversely, a divided Legislature has failed to settle the simmering issue of what regulations and restrictions are appropriate for boaters on Maine's lakes and ponds. Current rules are either draconian or invisible.

On certain bodies of water, motorized vessels are either prohibited or only allowed with minimal horsepower, such as five or 10. Some other water bodies completely disallow small personal watercraft, like Jet-Skis.

Still others have no limits, whether on type of vessel, speed or horsepower, which is a constant bone of contention between users of the lake or ponds with their varied, preferred modes of transportation.

Kayakers and speedboaters don't always get along, you know.

Harrison lawmaker Rep. Richard Sykes introduced legislation for a speed limit on Long Lake - the site of the LaPointe accident - and connecting Brandy Pond last year. Another bill sought to make boater safety instruction mandatory. Both failed to garner adequate support.

Many boaters felt the bills were unnecessary and discriminatory against larger, more powerful vessels. Some veteran boaters also felt insulted that the state would require they take safety classes, in spite of their experience.

There is always blowback for increasing regulations on lakes and ponds. It's one reason the laws are so widespread - support only seems to exist for prohibition or unfettered recreation. The medium is not so happy.

Although the LaPointe trial is over, the issues it raised remain valid. It's questionable whether boats like LaPointe's powerful model should be on smaller bodies of water, for example. Or what speed, or horsepower, for certain lakes and ponds are appropriate for all users and residents.

These issues are not going away. They simmer for awhile, then boil when accidents such as the one at Long Lake happen. Now that the trial is over, the possibility exists for this issue to return to low steam.

And absent another tragedy, it's an easy issue to ignore. There's little sense, though, in risking seeing another occur, then face the hard question of wondering, "What if we only had taken action then...."

Maine's boating laws need a fresh look. Now.

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