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Publicized Death Renews Criticism of Water Scooters

September 26, 1995

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ When Victor Vale walked up to a beachfront rental stand for his first ride on a water scooter, he got precious little instruction: Have fun and don’t hit anything.

``They should have someone showing you what you can expect when you’re out there,″ said the vacationer from New York City.

The publicized death of a tourist Sunday in a collision between his rented water scooter and a boat carrying singer Gloria Estefan has renewed criticism over a lack of safety regulations for the popular craft.

Investigators say 29-year-old Howard Clark of Washington, D.C., may have been trying to jump boat wakes off trendy South Beach when he was thrown from the rented Yamaha Waverunner into the propeller of Estefan’s boat. Clark’s passenger Tisha Greene, 22, suffered minor head injuries. The boat’s pilot, Estefan’s producer-husband, Emilio, was found not to be at fault.

Florida Marine Patrol Capt. Mike Tucker said the danger of personal watercraft comes from rental agencies with little regard for safety.

``They’re looking for the money. You have some good, reputable rentals that show you a video, tell you to how operate it. You got others that show you how the craft runs, and say, `Have fun,‴ Tucker said. ``There is no mandatory education at all right now.″

The explosion in popularity of personal watercraft has caught most states off guard. A spokesman with BOAT-US, a national boaters association based in Alexandria, Va., said only a handful of states have any regulations requiring safety education for personal watercraft operators.

``There’s not a whole lot of safety thinking, that’s what makes it difficult,″ David Pilvelait said.

There are now about 750,000 personal watercraft nationwide _ 48,000 of those in Florida.

The Florida Marine Patrol said personal watercraft were involved in about 34 percent of boating accidents in 1994. Those accidents resulted in 20 deaths last year, and seven so far this year.

To rent a water scooter in Florida, operators must be 16, wear a life jacket, and the vehicle must have a kill switch that disables it when the rider falls off.

Tucker said the most experienced drivers on the road have new rules to learn once on the water. When an obstacle comes into their path, the instinct of inexperienced drivers is to try to slow down, so they release the gas. But with loss of propulsion comes loss of control.

``It’s like a little speeding bullet,″ he said. ``There’s no brakes of course on boats.″

Those in the personal watercraft industry think the vehicles are getting a bad rap. John Birkinbine, of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association in Chicago, blames rental operators.

``Not enough rental operators are giving enough training. There are some very good videos that take about 10 minutes,″ said Birkinbine, who added his group is pushing for laws regulating rental companies.

``The model law we’ve been pushing says no personal watercraft should operate within 100 feet of anything else.″

A manager at a Miami Beach rental stand said she always tells renters to stay 200 feet from other vessels and to stay outside marked swimming areas. But after a short drill of how to operate the water bikes, renters are free to jump waves at speeds of more than 50 mph.

``It’s easy. All you have to do is give it gas, what matters is safety,″ said the concession manager Maria, who refused to give her last name. ``I’ve been renting for five years. I’ve put 85,000 people in the water. And nobody has ever died.″

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