JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles on Thursday signed the boating safety bill into law and predicted it will make Alaska safer.
Standing at a downtown harbor a few feet from a display of children's personal floatation devices, part of the ''Kids Don't Float'' program, Knowles said the law is needed to prevent marine tragedies.
''Alaska suffers ten times the national average in recreational boating fatalities,'' Knowles said. ''Yet, until today, we were the only state without a boating safety program.''
Sixty-seven people died in recreational boating accidents in the past two years.
House Bill 108, sponsored by Rep. Bill Hudson, R-Juneau, transfers boat safety regulatory authority from the U.S. Coast Guard to the state and makes Alaska eligible for $500,000 in federal marine fuel taxes that can be used for boating safety education. The federal aid will increase to $900,000 in fiscal year 2002.
Three-fourths of the money will head to the state's Office of Boating Safety, part of the Division of Parks, for boating education programs, said Hudson aide Melinda Hofstad.
The office plans to expand successful programs such as ''Kids Don't Float,'' which makes child life preservers available on an honor system at docks and boat launches. About 5,000 personal flotation devices have been made available in 200 Alaska communities. The program is credited with saving eight lives, said Sue Hargis, Coast Guard boating safety officer.
The state office also plans an annual Boating Safety Handbook, a website, and public awareness campaigns.
Boat registration will transfer from the Coast Guard to the state and for the first time will include human-powered vessels longer than 10 feet as of Jan. 1. Registration will be available through Division of Motor Vehicle offices, by mail, and online. Also, boat dealers will be able to register new boats.
Owners of motorized will pay the same $24 fee the Coast Guard now charges for three years of registration. The fee for canoes and kayaks will be $10 dollars for three years.
Hudson said registration is critical for identification of boat occupants in the early stages of search and rescue missions. Rescuers who find vessels need to know if people were aboard or if boats simply broke free from moorings.
Registration is projected to bring in $600,000 annually, which Hudson said could be added to the federal money for boat safety education.
Legislators since 1969 have tried to approve a boating safety program. After New Hampshire approved a boating safety program in 1985, Alaska was the last holdout.
Hudson said he cosponsored a boating safety bill with Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer when both were freshmen in the Legislature in 1986. A 20-year Coast Guard veteran who rose from seaman recruit to commander, Hudson made the bill one of his highest priorities.
''This is a bill I felt I was born to deliver,'' he said.
Knowles said rural areas will get special attention in boating education programs.
The new law requires varying safety equipment, depending on the size of the boat. Boats could be required to carry fire extinguishers, backfire flame protectors, visual distress signals or sound-making devices.
The Coast Guard limited boating safety enforcement to coastal communities. Under the new law, Alaska State Troopers can enforce boating safety in lakes and rivers.
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