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Getting Serious About Safety

Recognizing the dramatic increase in boat traffic on Florida’s waterways, the Marine Industries Association of Southwest Florida and Tampa Bay recently brought together 15 law enforcement and government agencies with more than 30 marine businesses for a deep dive into increasing concerns about safety.

Moreover, seeing the success of that initial forum for participants from Sarasota and Manatee counties, the MIA has added another forum for law enforcement and marine businesses in Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties. It’s scheduled for Sept. 15 at the Riverside Community Center in Fort Myers.

The program included updates on new and pending boating laws; a review of livery (rental) laws by the Florida Wildlife Commission; reports from Randall Bibler with NOAA Law Enforcement; a data presentation and information presentation by Gretchen Lovewell with Mote Marine Laboratory; and reports from the Coast Guard on its activities along Florida’s west coast.

The Coast Guard highlighted its recently released 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics, which report that accidents, fatalities and injuries were all significantly higher compared with the prior year. The top five reasons cited for accidents:

1. operator inattention

2. operator inexperience

3. improper lookout

4. excessive speed

5. machinery failure (new to the top five in 2020)

Overall, the Coast Guard noted 5,265 accidents, 767 deaths and 3,191 injuries, representing one-year increases of 26, 25 and 25 percent, respectively. Moreover, some observers assume that many first-time boat owners are either inexperienced in maintenance or ignored getting serviced during the pandemic.

For the forum, the MIA partnered with the West Coast Inland Navigation District to host the meeting. “Boating safety is a growing concern for law enforcement and our industry,” said Justin McBride, an MIA board member and the executive director of WCIND. “We interact regularly with these agencies. I see every day how frustrated they are and how much they care. They welcomed the opportunity for dialogue with marine businesses.”

Throughout the day, the discussion kept recentering on inexperienced boat and PWC operators. Law enforcement finds itself dealing with these issues without any additional budget or personnel, and believes lines of communications with local marine businesses can be a big help. The biggest concerns centered on rental operations, in particular personal watercraft, followed closely by general awareness.

To the point, law enforcement participants shared anecdotes of officers stopping operators who have little experience, do not pay attention to their surroundings and are unfamiliar with the Rules of the Road. Alcohol abuse adds to the problem, but irresponsible boat operation was the day’s main focus.

A major concern was identified by insurance agencies about rental operations. In Florida, there is a legal requirement to carry liability insurance for PWC rental operations, but it’s a head-scratcher that there’s no such requirement for boat rentals. Clint Frick, an MIA board member and agent at Legacy Special Risks, commented that insurance companies are becoming much more restrictive in their coverage of rental operations, and most major insurers are reluctant to write liability policies.

The consensus is that education is crucial, but how to best accomplish that from a practical standpoint is a challenge. Some dealers and larger boat clubs have instructional programs in place.

“In recent months, many of our members have stepped up their efforts to better educate their customers,” said John Good, MIA executive director. To that point, Freedom Boat Club’s Barry Slade outlined the requirements for new club members, which includes two hours of classroom and two hours of on-water instruction.

Likewise, Barry Marshall of the Florida dealership Viage Group said all its new-boat deliveries include instructional time with licensed captains, and that most reputable dealers now have similar programs in place.

While law enforcement personnel were quick to recognize the increased dealer efforts, in the end these programs don’t reach the majority of boaters that cause problems. They constantly see wake zones being ignored, PWC carelessly jumping wakes in marked channels, boats crossing each other haphazardly, and far too many boaters simply not paying attention to their surroundings. It highlights the need to find ways to reach the thousands of people who buy boats on Craigslist or from a consignment outlet or similar retailer.

“While there is no easy answer, the forum generated some great discussion and sharing of ideas,” noted Good. “Opening lines of communications between law enforcement and marine businesses is a major step forward because we all want the same result, safe boating. And as an MIA, we are already exploring additional ways we might reach the public with the safety message.”

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