As water education lags, Fla. leads in boat deaths

May 8, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--May 7, 2008

By Terry Tomalin and Alex Leary, Times Staff Writers

Boating deaths jumped 10 percent in Florida last year, marking the 16th year in 20 that the Sunshine State has led the nation in fatalities.

All told, 77 people died. Eight deaths were in Tampa Bay — from a 49-year-old Spring Hill man thrown from a speedboat to a kayaker who became unconscious after he fell into the water near the Gandy Bridge.

The 2007 statistics, released this week, come just weeks after state lawmakers bypassed a plan to phase in boater education requirements, which state officials believe would reduce deaths by as much as 25 percent.

Last year, 70 percent of all boating accidents involved operators with no formal safety education; for fatalities, that number was 85 percent.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asked the Legislature to approve a plan to phase in mandatory boater education over the next 11 years. Currently, only boaters under 21 must take such coursework.

“The numbers show that boater education works,” said Capt. Richard Moore, the state’s top boating law administrator. “Our research shows that we could save 15 to 25 lives a year if everybody took a safe boating class.”

But at a Feb. 6 meeting of the House Committee on Conservation and State Lands, the commission’s proposal fell on deaf ears. Legislators were skeptical about expanding the current regulations, equating it to big government.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for every person, especially those who have grown up with boats and would have enough common sense to know what’s right and wrong when on the water,” said Rep. Faye Culp, a Tampa Republican and vice chairwoman of the committee.

Two other Tampa Bay area lawmakers also weighed in. Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, called it “another case where government tries to act as our grandmothers.”

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, voiced support for the current regulations, but felt older boaters should recognize the risks. “For everyone who swims in a pool, we don’t force them to go take a course to tell them you are swimming at your own risk,” he said.

But Moore said older boaters are at the heart of the problem.

“Most of the boating accidents and fatalities involve people 36 years or older, who have more than 100 hours boating experience and no formal boating education,” he said.

In 1996, Florida began requiring boaters 21 years or younger to take a boater education course. Since its passage, young boaters have gone from being involved in more than 21 percent of accidents to 14 percent.

The Florida Boating Advisory Council, which is comprised of 18 people representing a variety of boating interests, supported the Conservation Commission measure. So does a majority of voters and boaters in the state, according to commission surveys, including one conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research in 2007.

The Mason-Dixon poll showed that 89 percent of those polled support requiring all boaters to undergo mandatory education.

The deadliest area for boaters in Florida was Miami-Dade with 13 fatalities. Statewide, the leading cause of death continues to be drowning.

State officials say drowning deaths would also decrease if boaters would wear life jackets, or personal flotation devices.

“There is really no excuse for it. Today’s PFDs are not hot or cumbersome like the old ones,” said Lt. Ed Cates, a commission boating safety officer. “You can wear one all day and forget you have it on.”