Coast Guard suggests driver's licenses for boaters

Published 8 January 2007

Program would help authorities keep track of small boats; idea challenged by state planners already upset by REAL-ID Act; uniformity of IDs could lead to uniformity of sporting laws; Coast Guard concerned about smuggling, critical infrastructure

Here is an idea whose time may have come — come, that is, for companies in any way involved in the manufacture of identification cards. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen last week suggested that state governments offer boating licenses as a method of controlling the worrisome threat from small craft. Although forty-four states require some kind of mandatory education before boaters can get on the water, only Alabama requires licences. All told, America has 77 million recreational boaters, all of whom would presumably be issued photo and biometrics-based identification cards under Allen’s proposal. No estimates as to cost were offered, but they would certainly be considerable.

Speaking at a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Allen noted that he expected resistence from state lawmakers, especially considering lingering animosity over the unfunded REAL-ID Act and concern that the requirement could hurt the sport tourism industry. There is also concern that the regulation might lead to forced uniformity of fishing and boating laws: while Maryland has no age restrictions on who can pilot a boat, neighboring Virginia sets fourteen as the minimum age. Penalties vary as well. A drunk boater in Florida has his motor vehicle driver’s license suspended; but 39 states make no connection between the two activities.

Nevertheless, increasing worries about maritime attacks on critical infrastructure, especially ports and chemical plants, may force changes. “As good as we get at surveillance, as good as we get at patrolling and creating deterrence out there, sooner or later we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that we need to know to a greater certainty who are operating boats out there, what boats are out there,” said Allen.

-read more in Philip Ewing’s Stateline report