Connecticut’s Legal Boating Age Questioned Following Tragic Accident

August 15, 2014

By David Moran | Hartford Courant

In Connecticut, you must be at least 16 years old to obtain a learner’s permit to drive a car and only after completing a number of tests and courses. Newly licensed 16- or 17-year old drivers face numerous restrictions on times they can operate the vehicle and who can be in the car with them for as long as their first year.

But anybody 12 years or older can operate any type of boat in Connecticut, unsupervised, regardless of the size of the boat or the horsepower provided by the engine, as long as they complete an eight-hour boating safety course and pass a multiple-choice exam. That exam does not include a test of the boat in the water.
“If you’re 12 and you have a safe boating certificate, you can operate anything,” said Dwayne Gardner, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which has jurisdiction over the state’s boating laws. “You just have to take the course and pass the test.”

Many expressed surprise or concern last week following a tragic accident involving four teenage girls who were boating and tubing. According to police, four Greenwich teenage girls, all between the ages of 15 and 16, were operating a 21-foot powerboat with a 200-horsepower engine on Long Island Sound, unsupervised by adults. Two of the girls were in the boat towing two girls on an inflatable tube. The two girls in the tube fell out, police say, and after the girl operating the boat turned around to pick them up, the boat’s propeller hit the girls in the water.

Emily Fedorko, 16, died at the scene from her injuries, while an unidentified 15-year old girl was taken to Stamford Hospital for a leg injury that “required extensive stitching.”

Police said alcohol does not appear to be a factor in the accident and that the 16-year old driver of the boat had a Connecticut issued boating safety certificate. The accident remains under investigation.

State Rep. Stephen Dargan, a Democratic who represents the 115 Assembly District of West Haven and co-chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he was troubled to learn that minors as young as 12 can operate a boat under Connecticut law without adult supervision.

“It certainly got my attention,” he said. “That is somewhat of a young age for somebody using a lot of horsepower.”

Dargan, who was elected in 1990, said he remembers when the legislature toughened Connecticut’s teen driving laws several years ago due to the number of teenager-involved accidents. He said he wouldn’t be opposed to reexamining the legal boating age.

“I remember voting on those (driving laws) because of some of the horrific tragedies,” Dargan said. “We might have to look at the further correction of what we do with boating licenses in the state.”

According to the state of Connecticut’s Center For Teen Driving website, “Connecticut’s teen driving laws are among the strongest and toughest in the country.” A brochure from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles that offers safety tips for parents and teen drivers cites teenage brain development as a potential factor in accidents.

“Research shows that the portion of the brain that assesses risk and danger does not fully develop until the mid-20s. Teens are risk takers, lacking the experience, judgment and maturity to recognize many potentially hazardous situations,” the brochure states.

But State Sen. Len Fasano, a Republican who represents North Haven, East Haven and Wallingford and says he started boating as early as age eight, said you can’t compare operating a boat with driving a car.

“Driving is much more perilous than boating,” Fasano said.

Fasano, who said his children got their safe boating certificates around the age of 12 or 13, said he doesn’t think there’s anything the state could do legislatively to prevent such types of accidents in the future.

“What happened in Greenwich is a horrible, horrible accident. But it’s just that, an accident,” he said. “I don’t think what happened is a result of someone not knowing how to run a boat.”

Richard Werner, a licensed Coast Guard captain and the president of Safe Boat America, the largest provider of boating safety courses in the state of Connecticut, said boating accidents in general are rare compared to the number of registered boats on the water in any given state.And fatal boating accidents are very rare.

“The accidents you hear about are people that are drunk and drive into the rocks or kids who get into an accident,” Werner said. “I have kids, I hate to talk like that, but statistics are what they are.”

There were 35 boating accidents in Connecticut in 2013 that resulted in one fatality, according to the United States Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Safety Report. There were 49 boating accidents in 2012 and 42 boating accidents in 2011, which resulted in six and eight deaths respectively. None of those accidents during that time period involved a minor operating a boat, according to the Coast Guard, while the youngest victim was 18.