This rigid inflatable boat caused the death of Ethan Isaacs last year. (submitted photo)
By Rachel Brown Hackney, SarasotaNewsLeader.com
State Rep. Fiona McFarland and state Sen. Joe Gruters, both Sarasota Republicans, have filed bills in the 2021 legislative session that would require any operator of a boat less than 26 feet in length to wear a device that automatically would shut off the engine if the operator were thrown overboard.
It’s the result of an accident that took the life of a Sarasota youngster.
Additionally, in January, when Congress approved the latest National Defense Authorization Act, it included a provision in that bill that requires operators of boats 26 feet and smaller to attach “their lanyard kill switch or use their wireless lanyard if either is available on their vessels if they are on federal waters,” according to the website PropellerSafety.com .
In December 2018, the site notes, a law was passed to require the installation of “kill switches” on new boats of 26 or fewer feet.
The federal “kill switch” law is expected to go into effect around April 1.
That regulation imposes a civil penalty of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for any subsequent offense.
McFarland’s and Gruters’ proposed legislation, called “Ethan’s Law,” honors the memory of Ethan Isaacs, a 10-year-old Sarasota boy who was fatally injured as a result of a Sarasota Youth Sailing program accident in November.
Ethan, who was a sixth-grader at Pine View School in Osprey, “was taking part in a youth club sailing practice when he was struck and killed by an unmanned motorboat in Sarasota Bay after the instructor lost his footing and fell overboard,” a news release explained. Ethan’s parents approached McFarland shortly after his death, the release continued. (McFarland was elected to the District 72 House seat on Nov. 3.)
“We are grateful for the opportunity to make a positive change to boating safety in the state of Florida in honor of our son Ethan Isaacs,” said Greg and Mindy Isaacs in the news release. “Ethan was an extremely gifted and kind boy with a full life ahead of him. His tragic death, which has caused our entire family a great deal of suffering, could have been prevented. It is our hope that Ethan’s Law will prevent future tragedies, save lives and make the Florida waterways safer for everyone.”
McFarland has reported wide support for the bill, having worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, boat owners associations, boat manufacturers, and other marine-safety stakeholders when crafting the bill’s language.
“Whenever there’s a tragedy, particularly when a young child dies, you always wonder what could have been done to prevent it from happening,” said McFarland in the release. “I’m honored to be working with the Isaacs family to make the Florida waterways safer.”
According to the release, “Florida regularly ranks as a top state in number of boating accidents and fatalities, according to recent government reports.”
Since 2015, 95 formal reports have been filed regarding accidents involving an operator who fell overboard, 79 of which resulted in an injury or death, the release added.
The legislation would allow the FWC, county sheriff’s office personnel, and marine safety officers on waterways to enforce Ethan’s Law, the release noted.
Ethan’s Law would not “apply to motorboats making way solely by the use of a trolling motor or to vessels with a main helm installed within an enclosed cabin,” the House bill says. “Trolling motor” refers to a self-contained unit with an electric motor, a propeller and controls that is affixed to a vessel’s bow or stern “and which is used to move the vessel,” the bill explains.
Anyone violating the law who causes damage to another person’s property or causes an injury less severe than a serious bodily injury, as defined in another state law, would be guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor, the bill continues.
If someone who violated the law caused serious bodily injury to another person, as defined in the Florida Statutes, that boat operator would be guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor, the bill adds.
Finally, if an individual violating the law caused a death, the person would be guilty of vessel homicide, as defined in another section of state law, the bill notes.
Florida Statute 782.072 defines “vessel homicide” as “the killing of a human being by the operation of a vessel as defined in [Florida Statute 327.02] by another in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of, or great bodily harm, to another.”
Vessel homicide is a felony.
That section of state law “does not require that the person knew that the accident resulted in injury or death.”
If Ethan’s Law wins legislative approval, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the bill, the law would take effect on July 1, the Florida House notes.
Mason Tush, whose family owns CB’s Saltwater Outfitters, said he feels the bills should specify the types of vessels that really need to be the focus of such a law, including rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) and boat tenders. Both have low freeboards, he noted, which makes it easier for an operator to fall overboard.
Persons who drive jet skis already are required to have the kill switch devices tethered to them, he added.
And even if Ethan’s Law went into effect, Tush said “It’s going to be basically unenforceable.”
FWC does not have nearly enough officers on the water to ensure compliance with laws already on the books, Tush added. For example, he said, “People blow through the manatee zones every day,” but ticketing for such violations is rare.
He was referring to zones on the water where the sea creatures commonly gather. State law requires extra slow boat speeds in those areas to try to protect the manatees from serious injury and death.