Thursday, August 21, 2008

Legislature should more closely examine boat hauling issues

Legislature should more closely examine boat hauling issues

Earlier this week, Senate leader Marc Basnight said he wants to bring lawmakers back to Raleigh to override Gov. Mike Easley’s veto of a bill that would allow trailers to haul wider boats on state roads.

The measure originated in the House, so Basnight indicated he was waiting for House Speaker Joe Hackney to make the first move, according to a story in The News & Observer. Hackney is checking to see whether House members want to come back to Raleigh for an override vote, a spokesman for the speaker told the News & Observer.


The message the speaker ought to get back from lawmakers is a considered “No.”

The governor is right to place highway safety over all other considerations, but he’s also right in urging lawmakers take up the bill again in January, “when there is time to thoughtfully avoid the consequences” of the present bill.

The bill Easley vetoed would allow drivers to pull boats up to 10 feet wide on any day of the week without first obtaining a special permit. It would also allow motorists to tow watercraft up to 9 1/2 feet wide at night. Current law restricts the width of boats being towed to 8 1/2 feet and allows towing only during daylight hours on weekends.

Boaters’ concerns

The bill resulted from concerns raised by boaters after the N.C. Highway Patrol stopped several anglers in late summer 2007 and gave them tickets that resulted in large fines or fees for illegally trailering their boats, according to reports in “North Carolina Sportsman.”

Concerned boaters began calling the Highway Patrol and the Division of Motor Vehicles wanting to know exactly what the state’s trailering laws were and how to comply. A variety of official answers led to more confusion, according to North Carolina Sportsman. But, among other things, boaters learned that the laws had been in effect for years, but in the past the Highway Patrol considered them more applicable to commercial haulers, not individuals towing personal boats.

A forum at UNC Wilmington drew a large crowd in May and several East Coast lawmakers promised to introduce legislation to get the laws “straightened out,” according to the magazine.

The bill Easley vetoed is the only one of several that made it all the way through the legislative process, the magazine reported. Lawmakers supported it overwhelmingly in both the House, where the vote was 108-5, and the Senate, which voted 43-0 for it.

Width problems

Easley’s objections are that North Carolina has 60,000 miles of narrow two-lane roads and maintains roughly 1,000 bridges 18 feet wide or less, which would require 9 1/2 foot boats to cross the centerline in violation of state law.

He also objected to allowing boats as wide as 9 1/2 feet to be towed anytime, day or night, without a permit “as required by all other states from Texas to Virginia.” Another failure of the bill in Easley’s view is that it doesn’t restrict the blood alcohol level of those doing the towing to less than .08, which is double the amount allowed by commercial vehicles of smaller size.

Rep. Arthur Williams, a Beaufort Democrat, challenged Easley’s claims that the measure is unsafe.

“They’ve been running those boats up and down the highways of North Carolina since 1982,” Williams said. “They haven’t had a lot of accidents.”

Coastal interests

The issue is an important one for coastal communities, which depend on out-of-town boaters who come for fishing tournaments and other recreational opportunities for tourism revenue. It’s also important from the standpoint that North Carolina has a growing boat-building industry, exemplified by Palmer Marine’s new plant in Bladen County, that it has worked diligently to recruit. Being seen as a state that makes it hard for recreational boaters to tow their boats would do little to help those efforts.

The industry has been hit hard by the economic slowdown. Maverick Boat Co. is closing its manufacturing plant in Marion as of Aug. 28 and consolidating production in Fort Pierce, Ga., after Cobia boat sales were down 29 percent in June, usually the busiest month.

“Our country is in a recession, and our industry is in a massive downturn,” Maverick Boat CEO Scott Deal said. “We expect market conditions to improve and plan to resume production in Marion the very minute conditions allow.”

The state needs to do all it can to encourage boat builders like Maverick to return or bring jobs to North Carolina.

In Florida, according to North Carolina Sportsman, boats can be towed a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset if the towed vehicle isn’t more than 10 feet wide. Other states also have laws that are less restrictive than North Carolina’s current law.

Even so, the governor’s safety concerns shouldn’t be dismissed. Those of us who live in the western part of the state know how dangerous narrow, curvy roads can be for wide vehicles. A compromise might be to lower the permitted blood alcohol content to below .04 and to allow the Highway Patrol to ban trailering wide boats on roads with narrow bridges or where it would otherwise be dangerous.

That’s something lawmakers can debate in the next session, beginning in January. The governor’s veto should stand.

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