Observer Law Letter

Edward M. & Carol A. Brown
P. O. Box 274
Northfield Falls, VT 05664
(802) 485-7853

November 2, 2001

Senator William Doyle
Murray Road
Montpelier, VT 05602

Dear Senator Doyle:

Representative Maxine Grad tells me that you have agreed to help the water skiers and recreational boat users of Vermont effect a change in the current law, Title 23 – Vermont Statues Annotated – Chapter 29 – Section 3115. The proposed change is now before the House in bill # H.461. Maxine says that you have agreed to sponsor a similar bill before the Senate.

First of all, thank you very much for your efforts in this manner. This has been a very frustrating process for us. I would like to give you some background on this proposal. The Green Mountain Water Skiers is a state-wide club that seeks to promote the sport of water skiing, wake boarding, knee boarding and other related activities in a safe and fun manner. There is a large contingent of competitive level water skiers in Vermont with a high concentration here in Central Vermont. Skiers compete at the local, regional and national level.

The law as currently written requires that a boat pulling a skier, etc. have an observer in the boat at least 12 years old or older, in addition to the driver. The idea is that the observer will let the driver know if the skier wants to go faster, slower is done or has fallen. While this makes sense on paper, in practice it does not always work well. Observers do not always pay attention, can be slow to react and more often than not are more of a distraction for the driver than a help.

Our proposal would allow for the use of a wide-angle, rear view mirror or an observer. A wide-angle rear view mirror gives the driver a complete field of vision of the person being towed behind the boat. At the same time, the driver is keeping his eyes faced front and able to see what is ahead of the boat.

We began this process three years ago. Several members of the Green Mountain Water Skiers met with Lieutenant Buck who is the head of the Marine Division of the Vermont State Police to discuss our proposal. He was supportive of our idea and provided us with information on how to proceed. Prior to this meeting with Lieutenant Buck, I had written to all 50 states to ask for copies of their boating regulations. I received responses from 44 states. Of those 44 states, 20 states (46%) require either a mirror or an observer, but not both. Virginia requires only that the skier be wearing a personal floatation device. North Carolina requires only a mirror.

Former Representative Alan Weiss introduced the bill for us in 1999 and it was assigned to the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. Testimony was heard from Lieutenant Buck, Bruce Epstein who is the State safety director for USA Water Ski (the governing body of the sport) sanctioned events and from myself. It appeared to be received very favorably. We thought we were making good progress. Unfortunately, the chair of that committee chose not to bring it to a vote.

Last year, Representative Jim Masland introduced the bill again and it became House bill 461 and was assigned to the Transportation Committee that is chaired by Representative Dick Pembroke. Additional sponsors include Maxine Grad, David Bolduc, William Cleland, Albert Krawczyk, Fred Maslack, Alice Nitka and John Patrick Tracy. Senator Phil Scott also agreed to support the bill when it got to the Senate.

Once again we are stalled in the Committee. Representative Pembroke has not brought the bill to a vote in his committee. This is a very simple change to the law and requires no funding of any kind.

The fact that Lieutenant Buck supports this change should carry a lot of weight since he is responsible for boating safety in Vermont. In talking to him, he has commented that many times when there is no mirror in the boat, the driver is looking behind him at the person being towed instead of relying on the observer, and can result in accidents or near accidents.

My husband and I are very serious water skiers and we water ski from April through October. We primarily ski in the slalom course and compete as well. This level of skiing requires a great deal of training. Since it also requires calm water and no other boat traffic, we try to ski early mornings or evenings after work when there are fewer boats on the water. It can be difficult to find a third person to act as an observer who is willing to go out then and spend the amount of time that is required. This can limit training time. Many other competitive level water skiers face the same situation.

From a driver’s perspective, driving for competitive level skiing is very technical and timing is critical. Speeds are timed to the hundredths of a second. Having an observer in the boat talking to the driver can be a distraction that causes slower response times from the driver. A good driver knows what the skier is doing and will react quickly to the skier’s needs.

Recreational boaters would benefit from this change in the law as well. With the boat driver’s attention focused to the front of the boat, safety would be enhanced. Families with children under the age of 12 would also be able to ski without having to find an additional person over the age of 12 to act as an observer.

Having skied in several other states where the use of a mirror is allowed, I can say that it works very well. Serious injuries from water skiing are very rare. The skier is required to wear a personal floatation device that will protect them from drowning in the event of a fall with an injury involved and will also keep them on the surface of the water. Water skiing is a very safe sport that promotes excellent physical fitness as well.

I apologize for the length of this letter. I would be happy to talk with you about this bill. I have met you many times at various Northfield Business and Professional Association meeting and events. Your help is greatly appreciated. With any luck, we will be successful this time around. Representative Maxine Grad has done an outstanding job of trying to push this along. We have support all around Vermont from water skiers of all ages.

Please let me know what we can do to help. I can be reached evenings at the phone number above or Monday – Thursday at my work number of 485-5241.

Sincerely yours,

Carol A. Brown