LOS ANGELES--Mandatory boater education in California would save lives and should be adopted as quickly as the state Legislature can pass it, a national expert on recreational boating said here Thursday as the state took up the issue for the first time since 1999.

"Boater education works," said Bill Gossard of the National Transportation Safety Board at a public hearing on how the state can make its waterways safer. "California needs it. This is a very serious issue."

The California Department of Boating and Waterways is gathering input on possible legislation to create an education requirement for boat operators. It would not sponsor the legislation but would work with groups that would, said department Director Raynor Tsuneyoshi.

"My educated belief is that requiring boaters to learn basic safety before going out on the water will save lives," said Tsuneyoshi. "There's no question that California's boating accidents and deaths are too high."

The Times reported on July 2 that an analysis of a U.S. Coast Guard database showed more than 88 percent of boating accidents on Northern California's waterways were caused by boaters who did not know, or ignored, basic safety rules.

California is one of 16 states that does not require safety training for boaters. The NTSB has pushed for more than 20 years for the state to adopt a program.

Victims of boating accidents and family members who lost relatives said the state needs mandatory boating education.

"Now. Right now. Across the board for all boaters," said Marion Cruz of Los Osos, whose 20-year-old son died in a 1993 accident in Nevada when a houseboat backed over him as he swam. She is a member of a group called Stop Propeller Injuries Now, or SPIN, and she wants the state to require propeller guards on all houseboats.

"It is strange that we don't have (mandatory education) in California," said Larry Skahill, 48, of Lompoc in Santa Barbara County. He nearly died four years ago when a boat ran him over while he snorkeled with his son in a swimming-only area. The boat's propeller nearly cut him in half.

"I lost three-quarters of my blood. It is a miracle I am alive," he said. "Look, I believe in freedom, but that we have nothing is crazy. All the statistics point to a positive benefit."

Pam Rudy of Chico lost her 21-year-old son a year ago when a houseboat propeller ripped open his leg. "He was caught between the pontoons," she said, sobbing softly. "I stood by my son's bedside and watched him die. We want a change to keep people from going through what we went through."

Her son, she said, was ignorant of boater safety when he jumped from the front of the rented boat on which he was a passenger.

If education were required, the boat operator could have known to stop her son from leaping into the water, she said. Rudy also said the state needs to release more information about boating accidents, including their exact location.

The Times reported that the state boating department does not consider the date and locations of accidents public information because it is drawn from affidavits submitted by boaters involved in accidents.

"This is important information," Rudy said. "None of it should be (withheld) from the public. The citizens of California pay for those stats. Why aren't they public?"

Much of the discussion Thursday centered on how an educational program would work. Some states have required people born after a certain date to take training while not mandating it for older boat operators. Gossard said age should not be a factor in what California does.

"As soon as you can, do a program for the entire adult population" of boat operators, he said.

Thursday's hearing marks the state's first consideration of boater education since former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill in 1999 that would have created such a program.

Gossard said that if Davis had signed the bill, more than 100 lives might have been saved. California averages 52 boating deaths a year. Education would reduce that number by roughly 25 percent, Gossard estimated.

"I have been here before," Gossard said. "I fought very hard in 1999."

Thomas Peele is a Times investigative reporter. Reach him at 925-977-8463 or tpeele@cctimes.com.