Concord — October 26, 2005 — A committee of lawmakers has narrowly recommended speed limits for Lake Winnipesaukee and all of the state’s lakes and rivers.
The amended bill, which was approved yesterday by a vote of 11 to 10, sets the limit at 45 mph during the day and 25 mph from a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise, with exceptions for sanctioned boat racing and emergency vessels. It also requires boaters to operate at a “reasonable and prudent” speed according to conditions, which means the Marine Patrol could stop boaters traveling within the speed limit if they’re going too fast in bad weather or on a crowded lake.
Any convictions would be reported to the Division of Motor Vehicles and would become part of the operator’s driving record. Currently, the only marine conviction noted in motor vehicle records is boating while intoxicated.
The legislation would amend a law that applies to all the state’s public waters – natural bodies of fresh water that are larger than 10 acres.
Rep. James Pilliod, a Belmont Republican and the bill’s only sponsor, said he believes the bill will find strong support in the House next year.
“I would have been satisfied with a little bigger yes vote,” Pilliod said yesterday. “We haven’t won yet. But I certainly feel it’s a good way down the road.”
The House will consider the bill next year. Because the voting was so close, Rep. Dave Currier, a Henniker Republican and chairman of the Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, said he expected that the recommendation to the House would include the minority opinion.
The original speed limit bill, which was debated for months, would only have affected Lake Winnipesaukee. Amending it to apply to all the state’s bodies of water was a concession to the New Hampshire Lakes Association. Placing the restriction on all lakes also means the new rules wouldn’t drive more powerboats to the smaller lakes, Pilliod said.
Jared Teutsch, policy director for the Lakes Association, said putting limits in place will make all who use the water feel safer.
“By no means is a speed limit the answer to the problems on the lakes, the crowding and other issues,” Teutsch said. “But it’s an excellent start.”
The committee’s main point of contention yesterday was whether a speed limit made any sense.
“Forty-five (mph) is an arbitrary number, but 45 seems to most people to be a good number,” said Rep. Dennis Abbott, a Democrat from Newmarket.
Rep. David Russell, a Republican from Gilmanton Iron Works, said the limit was too arbitrary. Russell, who has spent time on Winnipesaukee all his life, said he’d personally experienced a boating tragedy, though he did not elaborate. A speed limit of 45 mph could be too fast in some conditions, he said, and not setting a speed limit would give Marine Patrol officers more latitude in enforcement.
“As far as I’m concerned, numbers don’t make it,” he said. “Common sense, good enforcement and good education do.”
Both sides touched upon many of the concerns brought up by members of the public at summer meetings in the Lakes Region, such as whether speed is as much a problem as congestion and reckless operation.
“The fact that the lake is more congested (than in the past), having boats going faster, to me, is sort of like bumper cars at a carnival,”said Rep. Frank Tupper, a Democrat from Canterbury who voted for the speed limit. “. . . Why should one group of people who are recreating have to sacrifice so that one other group of people can recreate?”
“If anyone thinks this amendment is going to make Lake Winnipesaukee safer, they’re fooling themselves,” said Rep. John Gibson, a Merrimack Republican. Gibson, who has spent time on the lake since he was a boy, said congestion is the real issue. “I think adding a speed limit is arbitrary and capricious.”
Committee members debated whether a speed limit would help or hurt the state’s tourism economy and wondered how enforceable it would be. Rep. Christopher Irish, a Claremont Republican, said yesterday that speeders can see Marine Patrol boats in plenty of time to slow down.
“I don’t believe that we should pass laws that we can’t enforce,” he said.
David Barrett, the director of the Marine Patrol, has said radar guns can detect speeding boats only from certain angles. And only about 15 percent of boats on the lakes drive faster than 50 or 55 mph, he said.
“But whatever they decide on, we’ll enforce it,” he said yesterday. “We’re going to have to live with it.”
Marina owners who oppose the bill have raised similar arguments, saying the lakes would be safer if more boaters followed existing laws. Ed Crawford, co-owner of Winnisquam Marine, said he didn’t see the need for a speed limit there. Most accidents are alcohol-related or the result of carelessness, he said, not speed.
Crawford said he would have supported imposing a 55 mph speed limit – but not 45. Some boats, he said, need to hit 55 just to get someone up on water skis. Other than that, he said, not many boaters go that fast regularly.
“I’m just not sure our priorities are pointed toward the right direction,” he said.