Coast Guard Broaches State Boat Licenses

State governments would issue licenses to America 's 77 million recreational boaters if the nation's top maritime law enforcer gets his way.

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said the potential for a terrorist attack launched from small boats means that states and the Coast Guard must cooperate better to watch who is on America 's waterways. Though he doesn't yet have details or formal recommendations for how a national permit system would work, he said he'd like to see boating licenses be similar to motor vehicle driver's licenses.

Forty-four states now require some kind of mandatory education before boaters can get on the water, but just one - Alabama - oversees boaters with the same rigor it applies to motorists, according to the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) of Lexington, Ky.

Allen told a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures on Dec. 6 he expects resistance to his idea from state lawmakers who don't want to deal with the cost and details of licensing, and from the multi-billion-dollar boat-building and tourism industries, which don't want to risk a drop in revenues. (Click here to listen to an excerpt of Allen's remarks.)

Still, Allen said the debate on licensing has to start somewhere. "I'm trying to stick my toe in the water and see if I get bit by a piranha," he joked.

It hasn't yet come to that, but the nation's largest boating advocacy group is wary of the permitting idea.

"Mandatory education is one thing. We're not opposed to having people take a course. But we wouldn't want to see it turn into a license that could be restricted or taken away," said Chris Edmonston, director of boating safety for the Boat Owners Association of The United States , commonly known as Boat U.S, based in Alexandria, Va. The driver's license analogy was not a good start, he said.

"Driving a car is considered a privilege conferred by the state, but boating is considered a right. It gets back to that 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' sort of thing," Edmonston said.

Because there are no formal details and Allen just "wants to create a dialogue," neither the Coast Guard nor boating groups would guess how much it could cost for every state to issue more stringent boat permits. What is certain is Allen's purpose in calling for licenses: America 's under-supervised waterways are vulnerable to attacks, he said.

The United States already has endured terrorism using small civilian craft, albeit overseas: In 2000, suicide bombers in the port of Aden , Yemen , used an inflatable boat to blow themselves up next to the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39 others.

Terrorism experts point to other ways small boats potentially could assist in attacks - for example, a speedboat could deposit saboteurs at the outlet pipes of a nuclear power plant, or hijackers aboard a cruise ship. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers in a crowded harbor could use small watercraft to detonate a tanker carrying ultra-volatile liquefied natural gas, causing a powerful explosion that could kill thousands.

"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," Allen said.

At present, state maritime rules and tracking vary widely, said Gail Kulp, educational director of NASBLA. These rules can vary even between states along the same coastline: Maryland , for example, has no age restrictions on who can pilot a recreational boat, but in Virginia , which shares the Chesapeake Bay , operators must be at least 14.

Penalties also vary widely, Kulp said. If people in Florida and Indiana are found to be operating boats under the influence of drugs or alcohol, their motor vehicle driver's licenses can be suspended. But 39 states do not penalize driver's licenses for violations on the water. Devising uniform rules and enabling better tracking of boaters will be a priority for the Coast Guard in the coming years, Allen said, along with an appropriate respect for civil rights.

"I can understand as we move towards trying to understand what's going on out the water, to improve safety and security, there's a point to which the rights of our citizens need to be prime." he said.