Ottawa will change course on the way it licenses recreational boat operators, toughening up a testing program long criticized as ineffective and easy to cheat.
But the new standards will not take effect until September, after the height of the summer boating season, Transport Canada confirms. And some marine-safety experts suggest that even the proposed changes to the online Pleasure Craft Operator Card testing regime will still leave too many people operating boats without sufficient knowledge, training or oversight.
Calls for tougher rules on the water have grown following a horrific accident on Shuswap Lake in B.C. last weekend in which 53-year-old Ken Brown was killed when a speedboat rammed into his houseboat. Police investigating the accident have said speed, alcohol and the lack of running lights could have been factors in the crash.
James Kusie, of federal Transport Minister John Baird's office, said the government is altering the licensing program with the goal of improving boating safety from coast to coast.
"New standards are currently being developed to improve Internet testing and will be available to course providers later this year," he said.
Currently, anyone can obtain a licence by visiting the website of a company accredited by Transport Canada and taking a 36-question test. Critics have pointed out that there is no way to prevent applicants from looking up answers online or in reference books while taking the test.
The new test will have 50 questions and place greater emphasis on reviewing the rules of the water.
The change comes just one year after the agency concluded the 10-year phase-in of its recreational boater-licensing program. As of September, 2009, all boaters have been required to have the Pleasure Craft Operator Card, and could be fined a minimum of $250 if caught driving a boat without the licence.
Some boating enthusiasts and safety experts say the licensing program has done nothing to improve things on the water.
Ted Bacigalupo, a member of the Shuswap Regional District board, said few people on Lake Shuswap adhere to the licensing protocol.
"When you have folks coming from all parts of the country and the world, many of them don't really understand the rules," he said. "You get this real mix of boats and experience levels and everyone is influenced by a vacation mentality. It's not a good mix."
At one of Quebec's largest marinas on the South Shore of Montreal, manager Ginette McDuff said she has been sickened by some of the boating behaviour she sees.
"They're all proud when they get their captain's licence. But then you see what kind of captain they are, you realize it's worthless," she said. "It teaches nobody anything. It's completely ridiculous."
Transport Canada's Mr. Kusie said the new licensing protocol will require applicants to review an online study guide before they can take the test, and actually demonstrate that they have read and understood the material. New test questions have also been developed, he said, and were recently pilot-tested across Canada.
"This is what they do in the United States," said Robert Dupel, who runs a licensing program accredited by Transport Canada at Boaterexam.com. "We need Transport Canada to want to improve this."
On his site alone, Mr. Dupel said, about 1,000 people a day are currently taking the Pleasure Craft Operator test.
The failure rate is close to 12 per cent, but once customers pay they can take the test until they pass. Most have their licences within a week, he said.
He is in favour of a tougher test, but he points out that those who already have licences will not have to be reaccredited.
"It's good for life, like your high school diploma," Mr. Dupel said. "It's a done deal."
Ron Blanchet, a marine safety consultant, said many boaters still do not bother to get licences because no one is checking. According to Transport Canada, only 2.65 million of an estimated six million boaters had obtained licences as of last August. People who rent boats are not required to be licensed at all.
"I think a lot of people think, we live in a cottage on a small remote lake, we never see the police, we're not going to worry about it," Mr. Blanchet said. "Why bother?"