Concord — December 2, 2010 — Just as boaters on Lake Winnipesaukee are getting acquainted with permanent speed limits, a group of lawmakers and activists is seeking to do away with the restrictions.
In June, Gov. John Lynch signed into law a daytime speed limit of 45 mph on the lake and a 30-mph restriction at night. On Aug. 27, the law took effect, making permanent speed limits that were supposed to expire at the end of this year after a two-year trial period.
Now, with a new, heavily Republican Legislature convening next month, some are backing a bill to nix numerical speed limits in favor of a requirement that boaters travel at “a safe speed that is reasonable and prudent under the existing conditions.”
Scott Verdonck, a Goffstown resident who founded Safe Boaters of New Hampshire, the anti-speed-limit group organizing support for the new bill, said the proposed language comes from U.S. Coast Guard guidelines that govern federal waters.
“The current speed limits are an arbitrary number,” Verdonck said. “It makes New Hampshire look a lot more restrictive and uninviting from an economic standpoint.”
He said the new bill would apply to all inland waterways, not just Lake Winnipesaukee. The violations would take into account factors such as visibility, traffic density, wind and “manageability of the vessel.”
Sandy Helve, president of the Winnipesaukee Family Alliance for Boating Safety, which advocated for the speed limits, said the limits were determined by a host of factors intended to improve safety at the lake.
In New Hampshire, Squam and Spofford lakes already have limits of 40 mph during the day and 20 mph at night, she said. State law in Rhode Island sets speed limits of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night, as do restrictions on lakes in other states, including Lake George and Saratoga Lake in New York, she said.
Taking away a numerical speed limit would create more confusion, Helve argued.
“You need specific numbers, just as we have on the roads,” she said. That way, “it’s black-and-white, it’s understandable by everyone, it’s not open to interpretation.”
The law that made the speed limits permanent on Winnipesaukee cleared the Senate on a voice vote and passed the House 268-79. Helve said she hopes previous bipartisan support for the law will continue during the upcoming legislative session.
But Rep. John Hikel, a Republican from Goffstown who argued unsuccessfully against the permanent speed limits last session, said his cause may find greater support with the new Legislature, which now has veto-proof Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Among the bill’s seven co-sponsors is freshman Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Republican from Henniker.
“It’s a whole new House and a whole new year,” Hikel said. “There are a lot more liberty-minded people.”
Merrill Fay, the owner of Fay’s Boat Yard in Gilford and vocal supporter of the speed limits, worried about a new crop of small-government legislators in a “repealing mood.” Though Verdonck says the law hurts the area’s hospitality industry, Fay says it has benefited his business by bringing back “true recreational boaters.”
“Why don’t you think about repealing the highway speed limit, too, and people can drive any speed they want?” he said.
The new bill was submitted this week by primary sponsor Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester. D’Allesandro said he supports speed limits on the roads because he feels they are “more prudent” than limits on the water.
“Look at the number of people who use the highways,” he said. “There’s a real and present danger on the highways for people.”
David Barrett, who oversees the state Marine Patrol as head of the Division of Safety Services, said the speed limit debate is a nonissue.
Over the past 10 years, Barrett said, there have been three boating deaths attributed to speed. One of those is the 2008 death of Stephanie Beaudoin of Meredith, who died when a boat piloted by her best friend, Erica Blizzard, crashed into Diamond Island on Lake Winnipesaukee in the dark, early morning hours. State authorities estimate Blizzard was going at least 33 mph.
This year, Barrett said, the Marine Patrol issued eight tickets for speeding on the lake, resulting in court-issued fines in the vicinity of $100.
“That’s testimony to the fact that there aren’t a lot of people that go that fast,” Barrett said.
Barrett said speed on the lake wasn’t a problem before the limits were passed, and the small number of violators suggests to him that it is still a minor concern.
“My sense is, with all the serious issues that the Legislature needs to deal with, there might be better things to focus on,” he said.
(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)