California would require recreational boat operators to take a safety class and pass a test before being allowed on the water under draft legislation the Department of Boating and Waterways has made public.

The program _ if it becomes law _ would be phased in over eight years.

"This is really just a starting point. It is very, very fluid. Nothing is locked in," David Johnson, the department's deputy director, said Thursday.

The Times reported in July that an analysis of Coast Guard data of accidents on Northern California waterways showed that 88 percent were caused by boaters who ignore or don't know basic safety rules.

The draft bill, posted on the department's Web site, comes after public meetings in Los Angeles and Sacramento where boaters and safety advocates said they favored mandatory education.

The department is negotiating with three groups to sponsor the legislation, Johnson said. He declined to identify them until a decision is made.

Under the proposal:

n Anyone operating a boat with an engine of more than 15 horsepower, including personal watercraft, would be required to take a safety class and pass a proficiency exam. The boating department would specify the exam requirements.

? The training would be required for all boaters regardless of their experience.

? Boaters from other states would be exempt for 60 days provided they possess a safety certificate from their home state.

? People purchasing their first boat would have 60 days to pass the test.

? People renting a boat would be required to take an abbreviated safety class.

? The course and exam would be required to operate a sail boat more than 30 feet long.

? Violators could be fined as much as $500.

California is one of 13 states that does not require training to operate a recreational boat. The National Transportation Safety Board has targeted it for change.

Former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed similar legislation in 1999 _ an "unconscionable decision," Bill Gossard, the safety board's top recreational boating expert, said Thursday.

"You are losing a lot of lives in California unnecessarily," he said. "You'd be surprised how many people don't know the (safety) rules."

The Times reported July 2 that an analysis of Coast Guard data showed that 364 people died on Northern California waters between 1995 and 2004. There were 4,754 reported accidents during that time and 3,033 injured people.

Boaters who ignored or didn't know basic safety rules caused 88 percent of the accidents, according to the data.

Gossard estimated that mandatory education would reduce fatalities by at least one-third.

Johnson said he and other department officials support the concept of mandatory training but can't discuss specifics in any proposals until asked to give a formal opinion to the governor's staff.

Officials agreed last year to work with the NTSB on the first attempt to raise the issue since Davis' veto, Johnson said, but decided the process had to be "bottom up, not top down," which is why the Sacramento and Los Angles hearings occurred.

One of the "sticky wickets" in any proposal is what to require of boat renters, he said. "No one wants to ruin the tourist business."

Statistics show there is a "distinct problem" with accidents attributed to boat renters who lack knowledge or training in how to operate crafts safely, he said. The proposal in the draft law for abbreviated training before those boaters can leave a dock is a compromise designed not to cripple rental companies.

If comments on the draft law stay consistent with the input received at the public hearings, the talks with possible sponsors will go forward and a legislative author will be sought, Johnson said.

If comments run counter to the previous discussions, it is likely a third hearing would be conducted, he said.

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