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Ray Grass, Deseret News
Water skiing at Lake Powell.

Boat owners must have proof of liability insurance on board their craft at all times. They do not, however, have to prove themselves capable of handling a boat, nor does anyone else who gets behind the wheel.

Utah is one of only 11 states that does not require drivers to get formal boating safety instruction. A bill requiring boater education — sought by insurance companies — was presented to the Legislature three times. And three times it failed to pass.

And yet, according to the U.S. Coast Guard: Boating statistics in 2006 indicate that 70 percent of reported deaths occurred on recreational boats where the operator had not received any formal boating safety instruction. On average, approximately 700 people die in recreational boating accidents each year.

The report goes on to note that many boating fatalities occur because "boaters aren't educated about boating safety."

Dave Harris, boating coordinator for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, is among those who believe that an educated boater is a safer boater.

About half of all boating in Utah is done on Lake Powell.

Waters under the control of DPR, along with Strawberry and Flaming Gorge, take up a majority of the remaining half. Smaller waters, which are good for kayaking and canoeing, make up the remainder.

According to U.S. Coast Guard accounts, there were 85 boating accidents in Utah in 2006 and 12 boating fatalities. In 2007, there were five boating fatalities and two thus far into 2008 — one caused by carbon monoxide poisoning and the second by drowning.

Statistics also show that most drowning victims would be alive today had they been wearing a life jacket or personal flotation device.

Overall, two-thirds of all boating fatalities were drownings, and, of those, 80 percent of the victims were not wearing a life jacket.

Here in Utah, despite a midsummer calendar date, the boating season is young. Inclement weather and colder than normal water temperatures in April and May kept most boats covered.

Now with warmer temperatures and most of Utah's most popular reservoirs full, boats are being launched and waters are now getting busy, especially on weekends.

Which, said Harris, is reason for boat drivers to be extra careful and courteous.

In fact, the most common boating violation here in Utah is the "proximity law," which states that unless a boat is traveling at a wakeless speed, it must stay at least 150 feet from other boats, fishermen or swimmers.

"The next most common violation is owners not having all the required safety equipment on board or in proper working order," said Harris. "It always seems that there is at least one piece of equipment either missing or inoperable."

He also noted that there is growing concern over people riding on the "exterior portion" of a vessel.

"We see people riding on the padded engine cover and even on the swim platform. We see all kinds of things that are in violation. The rule is that any time the boat is going over wakeless speed, passengers must be on the inside of a rail or in the main seating area of the boat."

Another often overlooked detail is that owners must carry proof of liability insurance on the craft at all times, "just like in a car."

One misinterpreted law involves children and life jackets. The law reads that all children 12 and under must wear a certified life jacket while on board a boat.

"Some believe that when the boat is stopped that children can remove their life jackets. That is not the case. The only time a child can remove a life jacket is when that boat is beached or docked," he said.

Harris has also noticed a rise in the number of water ski/wakeboard incidents in recent years. In 2001, 2002 and 2003, there were four injuries related to water skiing and wakeboarding. In 2004, there were seven, in 2005, there were 21, and in 2006, there were 31. Last year, there were 24.

"My initial observation is most of these accidents were the result of wakeboarding," he added.

Last year, there were 76,821 boats registered in Utah. The trend the past few years has been up. In 2006, for example, there were 76,500. The peak in boating registrations came in 2001 with 79,500 boats registered.

Harris believes there are a number of reasons for the growing number of boats in Utah. Topping the list is the fact that people enjoy boating and water sports. He just hopes people practice good, safe boating.

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