Lawmakers Put the Brakes On Boats

Concord — February 3, 2006 — The House yesterday approved a 45 mph daytime speed limit and a 25 mph nighttime limit for boats on the state’s lakes and rivers. To add clout to the measure, lawmakers called for convictions to be reported on a boater’s motor vehicle record.

The measure must still be approved by the Senate and by Gov. John Lynch before becoming law.

Hundreds of people called and wrote to their legislators asking them to support the speed limits, and a coalition of 300 organized groups and businesses – including 12 marinas and the New Hampshire Camp Directors Association – backed the idea. They said it would make the lakes safer for family recreation and enhance the state’s tourism industry.

Opponents called the speed-limit numbers arbitrary and said the law would be difficult to enforce, warning that the measure could backfire. They also said the limits were an intrusion on boaters’ rights. The House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, which held a series of packed hearings on the bill last year, was divided. An 11-10 majority on the committee supported the speed limits.

That position ultimately prevailed, 193 to 139, but not before nearly three hours of debate and almost a dozen votes on the issue. Lawmakers spent 30 minutes at the outset trying to determine if they should limit debate to 20 minutes per side – a move they first endorsed, then rejected. Opponents of the bill made a pair of unsuccessful attempts to postpone all discussion and action indefinitely.

Rep. James Pilliod, the Belmont Republican who sponsored the bill, said the time had come for a speed limit. “Thousands and thousands of people are in fear of the lake now. That’s not right,”said Pilliod, who has spent 70 years on Winnipesaukee.

Rep. Chris Christensen, a Merrimack Republican who spoke for the minority on the resources committee, said those concerns were valid. But “while there may be a perceived problem, speed is not the problem,” he said. “We do not have any testimony or other evidence or proof that speed or speed limits would improve safety.”

Instead, Christensen said, education and enforcement of existing rules are the keys to safety. An existing “safe passage” rule requires boaters to travel at headway speed (a maximum of about 6 mph) when they’re within 150 feet of other boats, swimmers, the shore, mooring fields, docks or rafts. Boating-while-intoxicated offenses are reported on a boater’s motor-vehicle record, though safe-passage violations are not.

The speed limit idea was initially proposed for Lake Winnipesaukee, but the majority on the committee recommended expanding it to all bodies of water in the state. That one-size-fits-all approach is a bad idea, Christensen said. He suggested replacing the 45/25-mph figure with a “reasonable and prudent” speed rule, which is the language used by the Coast Guard and 35 other states, he said. That language can and should be enforced, he said. And violators should have their offenses recorded on their motor-vehicle records, he said.

But neither the 150-foot rule nor the “reasonable and prudent” language offer enough protection to swimmers, canoeists and others who want to enjoy passive recreation on the lake, speed-limit supporters said.

It takes two seconds to travel 70 mph, said Rep. Judith Spang, a Durham Democrat. “In two seconds that person will either have seen you, or there will have been a glare or there will have been chop or there will have been water on his sunglasses or he will have smiled at the person next to him,” she said.

But Stoddard Democrat Dan Eaton warned that the speed limits amounted to “feel-good legislation that doesn’t do anything.” Eaton, who spent 20 years in law enforcement, spoke of the problems of using radar on water. Everything from rocking of the marine-patrol boat to the plume of spray coming off the targeted craft can influence the radar reading, he said. He also warned of the cost. Although the bill contained no language about financial impact, it could lead to a substantial expense, Eaton said.

The state has 100 marine-patrol officers, only 15 of whom are full-time, he said. To enforce the speed limits, the state would need to hire more officers and train them in the use of marine radar, Eaton said. “If you don’t have law enforcement that backs it up, it leads to disrespect of all boating laws.”

But an amendment to replace the 45/25 mph speed limit with “reasonable and prudent” language failed, 146-187. An amendment to keep the offenses from being reported on motor-vehicle records also failed, 84-254. Henniker Republican David Currier warned against that change, saying it would be “taking the teeth out of the bill in terms of enforcement.”

Without fear of having violations reported, a boater in a $200,000 craft might think nothing of speeding, paying a $125 fine and then flouting the law again, said Currier, chairman of the resources committee.

The State House corridors were dotted yesterday with constituents wearing stickers both in support of and opposed to the bill. “We all want the same thing,” said Jim Wentworth, who wore an anti-speed limits badge and has a summer home on Winnipesaukee. “We want the waters to be safe for ourselves and our children. And that hasn’t been accomplished here.”

Wentworth, who also lives in Plaistow, owns an Outerlimits high-performance powerboat capable of crossing Winnipesaukee in 20 minutes. At slower speeds, the boat kicks up a larger wake and the bow sticks up in the air, reducing visibility and making travel less safe. He supports boater education and enforcement of the 150-foot rule, not speed limits.

With speed limits “I think that the most visible boats are going to be subject to the greatest harassment,” he said.

But Jeff Thurston, who has co-owned Thurston’s Marina at Weirs Beach since 1972, said the speed limits would enhance safety by setting “a clear parameter of appropriate behavior.” Some have likened the experience of venturing out into Winnipesaukee on a crowded weekend to a dog trying to cross an interstate, he said.

“That image is nothing we want to have associated with boating,” Thurston said.

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