Have you ever gone really fast on a boat?
Your vessel leaps across the waves like a thoroughbred jumping a series of fences. The engines roar, spray flies in your face, the slipstream rushes past your ears. The experience is so exhilarating!
Right up until the crash, that is.
According to a report released last week by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Florida ranks No. 1 nationwide in both recreational boating accidents and deaths on the water.
We earned that ranking because in 2019, there were 679 boat accidents in Florida’s waterways. Of those, 55 were fatal, resulting in 62 people dying.
This is not the first time Florida boaters have racked up this dubious honor. We have led the nation in these twin statistics every single year since 2015.
While those raw numbers are shocking, they are tempered by overall fatality rates — meaning the number of deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels.
Florida’s fatality rate for 2019 is 6.6 — higher than the national average of 5.2 deaths, but well below more than a dozen states with higher fatality rates, according to the recreational boating statistics.
According to a separate report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the people who are causing these crashes are of a particular type:
“These statistics show us that the boat operator most likely to be involved in a boating accident is a middle-age or older male who has boating experience yet has never learned the most important safety considerations by having taken a boating safety course.”
Alcohol, of course, is frequently a factor.
There has been interesting parallel to this trend of increasing boater fatalities. In 2019, Florida’s boaters set a new record for killing manatees, state data show. The 2019 total of 136 topped the 2018 record of 124, which topped the 2017 record of 111, which topped the 2016 record of 106 – you get the idea.
The fact that boaters are killing both themselves and manatees spurred the Save the Manatee Club several years ago to push for a law requiring boaters to get safety training as part of a licensing program.
“I’m a regular boater – I’ve been boating most of my life,” Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, told me this week. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement in how boaters are educated. The fact is, it’s not safe for the boaters or the manatees.”
You would think this would be the opposite of controversial. After all, we require people who drive trucks, buses and cars to get licenses. We require pilots to do the same.
So why not the guy guzzling a Michelob Light with one hand while steering his 44-foot Hatteras with the other as it zooms through the Intercoastal Waterway?
But the people who make boats have always opposed licensing boaters. Every time the proposal has come up – and it has come up more than once dating back to at least 1989 – the boating industry has convinced Florida legislators to say no.
“This is why people go out on boats, to get away from this kind of government intrusion,” one powerful state senator said in explaining his opposition to requiring boaters to so much as take a safety course. “Why should government be sticking its nose in that?”
In other words, let the people have their fun – even if it kills them.
The first time any boater licensing bill got out of committee was 1996 – and then it happened only because singer Gloria Estefan put some celebrity clout behind it. She and her husband Emilio had personal experience with the problem: A law student with no safety training had run his rented WaveRunner up under their boat and was sliced up to ribbons by the propellers.
“We simply need the regulation that everyone who’s going to drive a motor vehicle on the water should have the same training as someone who drives a motor vehicle on the road,” the Miami Sound Machine singer testified in a committee hearing.
Even then, the best Estefan could get them to do was pass a law saying anyone 16 or under would be required to take a boater safety course and carry a card certifying the completion of the course before operating a vessel of more than 10 horsepower.
That law has since been amended to cover anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 – which means it doesn’t touch the group that has shown it needs safety training.
I contacted the National Marine Manufacturers Association in Washington to ask about this. Their spokesman, David Dickerson, told me the organization supported the bill passed in response to the Estefans’ concerns, and supported similar boater education efforts in other states.
“We are committed to boating safety and work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and state and local authorities on these efforts,” he said in an email.
But that’s not the same as supporting licensing, Rose pointed out.
“A license can be taken away from you,” he said. “You can accumulate points against it, and if you get enough then the state can take it away.”
Sure enough, according to Brian Rehwinkel of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, once you earn that boating safety course completion card, no one can take it away from you.
“It’s a certification,” he explained. “It’s not a license.”
The other big difference, Rose said, is that the safety course, and the test to show you completed it, are online. That means when you take the test at the end, no teacher is looking over your shoulder. No one will stop you from looking up the answers before plugging them in.
“You don’t really have to learn anything” from Florida’s safety course, Rose said. “It’s almost not even a test.”
In opposing licensing, the marine industry is copying the stance of automakers, who for decades steadfastly opposed safety measures we take for granted today.
Seat belts, for instance, were first patented in 1885, but not until 1961 did any states require them in every car. Not until five years later did they become standard equipment in all makes and models. At one point, opponents actually argued that in a crash it was safer to be thrown clear of your car.
One of the common arguments against requiring boaters to get licensed – one that Dickerson made to me, in fact — is to point to the number of boats in Florida.
Licensing opponents contend that what’s driving the yearly increase in boat-related death and dismemberment is the fact that Florida has more registered boats than any other state.
Sure enough, the number keeps going up — 961,266 registered vessels last year, up from 918,256 in 2018, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Plus of course an unknown number of our 100 million or so annual tourists haul their boats down here to join the waterborne throngs.
Here’s the thing, though. While the number of boats keeps growing, you know what stays the same? The size of the waterways they have to fit through.
Nobody’s making more bays and lakes and rivers. With more and more boaters trying to make use of the same space, shouldn’t we expect them to have learned how to avoid hitting each other, not to mention all the docks, the buoys and the occasional manatee?
Summer officially starts this weekend, and then comes the Fourth of July, a major boating weekend in Florida. Here’s hoping that the Roman candles and bottle rockets flying through the air will be the only things that go bang.