Licensing boaters created an industry -- but for what purpose?
No evidence exists that investment of millions has made boating safer, but documents will soon be required for most powerboat operators
By Craig McInnes, Vancouver SunApril 14, 2009
Boaters, especially old boaters like me, can be a cantankerous lot.
So when Ottawa tried to make boating safer in the mid-1990s by licensing drivers, it hit a storm of protest.
Some came from old salts, who bristled at the notion that bureaucrats should interfere with the freedom of the seas.
The boating industry feared that new restrictions would hurt sales and rentals. At the time the regulation was being drafted, you could still walk into a boat dealer and launch a water-rocket capable of blasting down the lake at 100 kilometres an hour with no training whatsoever.
To mollify the critics while still trying to save lives, Ottawa turned to the grand tradition of a committee designing a horse. The committee came up with a camel known as the Pleasure Craft Operator Card.
The PCOC, is not, Transport Canada continues to insist, a licence, even though by Sept. 15 of this year, most Canadians will need to carry one to operate a powerboat in Canada. That fine bit of hairsplitting is emblematic of a program that will finally be fully implemented a decade after the licence -- sorry, Operator Card -- was first introduced.
You may have noticed I said "most Canadians." From the beginning, the PCOC program, however, well-intentioned it may have been from a safety point of view, has had serious loopholes, including the fact that even today, if you were born before April 1, 1983, you can still buy that big, fast, powerboat and zip down the lake with no training.
As part of its attempt to please everyone, Ottawa phased in the licensing requirement so that the people with the clout to complain effectively would not be affected for the first several years.
They started with the kids, reasonably limiting the horsepower children under 16 could control. People 16 and older when the licensing regulation took effect in 1999 could carry on as before, with no licence required until later this year.
An exception was a rule designed to capture personal watercraft -- Sea-Doos and the like. Effective in 2002, everyone, including geezers, had to pass a test and get a PCOC if they were in control of a boat less than four metres long.
That provision made sense in terms of trying to control high-speed PWCs, but it also created the bizarre situation that has existed over the past seven years in which adults needed a licence to drive a dinghy, but not to operate the big power boat it was being towed by.
After Sept. 15, it will still be legal to drive a power boat without a licence if it is a rental or you are an American who brought a boat with you to Canada. Try that with a car.
Transport Canada says that 1.5 million operator cards have been issued through approved distributors, representing about a quarter of the more than six million Canadian boaters who it believes ought to have one.
At $50 per licence -- the average price charged by the entrepreneurs and boating organizations that offer the simple course and test required -- that would represent a $300-million investment in safer boating by Canadians if they all come aboard,
Is it worth it? Transport Canada points to statistics that show a decrease in boating fatalities since the program began. But fatalities were also decreasing in the years before it was implemented.
The only sure winners so far are the dozens of companies that issue the firstname.lastname@example.org
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