Boating deaths jump, prompt legislation

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More than half of fatalities involved experienced boaters, blanket education requirements supported

More than half of fatalities involved experienced boaters, blanket education requirements supported

Florida wildlife officials want all boaters to take a safety course because boating fatalities are on the rise again, and it’s not just young people who are dying.

“We’re not just talking about the young, uneducated, wild, crazy boat operator,” says Capt. Richard Moore, the state’s boating law administrator.

Fatalities in Florida are rising at a much faster pace than registrations, and the majority of fatal accidents involve older, experienced boaters, says Moore. Fatalities rose 76.1 percent from 2000 to 2005, while registrations increased just 14.8 percent — to 1 million, says Moore. Fifty-eight percent of fatal accidents from 2001 to 2005 involved experienced operators 36 years and older, and 86 percent of all boating accidents in 2005 involved an operator over 21 years old.

Florida already requires boaters 21 years old and younger to take a safety course. Moore says older boaters need to hop aboard now and get educated.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is working on 2008 legislation to phase in mandatory safety education in five-year age increments for operators of boats with engines 10 hp or more. By 2010 those 25 years and younger would take a safety course; by 2011, 30 and under, by 2012, 35 and under and so on until by 2020 powerboaters of all ages are certified.

Moore thinks the time is right. The marine industry is behind mandatory education, though it has reservations about the phase-in schedule. Many Floridians also favor mandatory education. In a 2006 survey of 1,000 registered boaters, 72 percent said requiring all boat operators to take a test to demonstrate their knowledge of safe boating practices, boating laws and navigation rules was one thing that would most improve their enjoyment of boating. Others were better enforcement of reckless boating and boating under the influence laws.

“I think it’s needed. I’m all for it,” says Rick Rawlins, a fishing guide and owner of a fish camp near Deland, Fla. “I’m not for licensing, but I am for education.”

Bill Allbright, legislative chair for the Florida Council of Yacht Club’s 37 clubs and 50,000 members, said his membership also favors lifting the 21-year-old age cap on mandatory education. He says the clubs probably would go along with phasing in mandatory education in five-year age increments, but they would oppose licensing.

“Licensing doesn’t make me a better boater,” Allbright says. “It’s a piece of paper you can take away from me if I misbehave.”

Fifty-six percent of boaters in the fall 2006 survey were OK with powerboater licensing, but the industry — like the clubs and many boaters — adamantly opposes licensing or any other measure that would take boaters off the water.

The Marine Industries Association of Florida favors lifting the 21-year-old age cap on mandatory education, but is opposed to licensing and to the phase-in within five-year age groupings, says John Sprague, a marina owner from Stuart, Fla., and the MIAF’s government affairs chairman. Moore estimates the rapid-phase-in will increase state certification by 205,000 per year. Sprague doubts Florida’s boating education infrastructure has the capacity to educate that many boaters at one time, which means that those who can’t take a course as required won’t be able to use their boats. He would prefer to implement education in much more gradual one-year increments. Sprague said he also is concerned that a rapid phase-in could be a prelude to licensing.

Moore says rapid phase-in isn’t a prelude to licensing but a way to save more lives. He says studies of two states (Connecticut and Alabama) that have adopted quick phase-in of mandatory education show a 25-percent decline in fatalities over several years after the phase-in is complete.

“It will make our waterways safer quicker,” Moore says.

Certificates of completion of a boating safety course from other states would be recognized in Florida, Moore says. Rental operators would be able to issue temporary certificates to customers who pass a written test. Out-of-state or out-of-country boaters also could get temporary certification by passing an online test. “It would be good for boating in Florida waters for 12 months,” Moore says.

Moore says FWC, BoatU.S. and other online home study courses, classroom courses offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadrons, and other safety courses will satisfy the certification requirement.

“We want to make this as easy to comply with as possible,” Moore says.

Cost of a state boating education certificate would be $2. That doesn’t include the cost of the course. An FWC online course costs $20. Though costs vary with location, a Coast Guard Auxiliary course (America’s Boating Course) costs about $35 and a U.S. Power Squadrons basic boating course about $45.

The 2008 Florida legislative session opens March 4.

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