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Deputies cruise to urge safe scooting

Sheriff's deputies are stepping up efforts to teach proper use of personal watercraft.

By JOE HUMPHREY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2000


TAMPA -- About 82,000 water scooters roam Florida's waterways, more than any other state.

They can cut through water at speeds of up to 60 mph, propelled by rear-mounted water pumps. If properly used, they are safe. But not enough people learn about the dangerous side of personal watercraft before heading to the water, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies say.

To help increase public awareness, sheriff's marine deputies converged on the calm waters of Lake Magdalene on Wednesday morning, hoping to help reduce the number of accidents involving personal watercraft, more commonly known by brand names such as Jet Ski or WaveRunner.

Water scooters were involved in 397 reported accidents in Florida last year. Eight people died and 309 were injured. Hillsborough represented a small percentage of those; 18 accidents and 14 injuries, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Most accidents occur within the first 60 minutes of operation, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. "(People) take off without any attempt to learn how to operate (the scooters)," said T.J. Pinta of the Sheriff's Office.

An eight-person marine unit will patrol more than 450 square miles of county waterways this summer, ensuring boaters and personal watercraft users are staying safe.

Sgt. Ron Hartley said the marine unit stresses courtesy and common sense. The Sheriff's Office recently responded to a call of two people trying to throw water into each others faces by making fast, sharp turns. Their stunt cost one of them a broken leg.

"These things are extra fast and extra maneuverable, and that can get you in trouble in a hurry," Hartley said.

Personal watercraft users must be at least 14 years old in Florida. Anyone born after Sept. 30, 1980, must take a certification class to operate the vessel. Classes are offered by various organizations, such as the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Bombardier Recreational Products spokesman Rob Schuetz said sales of personal watercraft in Florida have risen 38 percent since 1995, while the accident rate has fallen by 22 percent. He praises mandatory training programs such as Florida's.

-- Times staff writer Joe Humphrey can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or humphrey@sptimes.com.

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