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Say Bon Voyage To Bill Raising Jet Ski Age

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All South Florida Democrat Jeremy Ring wanted to do was pass a bill suggested by high school students in his district. But raising the legal age to ride a jet ski from 14 to 16 is proving to be a bigger civics lesson than he bargained for.

Maybe Ring seemed so surprised at the chilly reception his bill received because he sees it as a safety issue.

After all, there’s evidence inexperienced jet ski riders are getting hurt. The latest figures document 96 jet ski accidents in 2014 and five fatalities.

“You’ve got boats coming in and out. I don’t know if you’ve ever been through Hillsborough Channel, or Government Cut down in Miami, or Port St. Lucie. These are dangerous for adults.”

However, the same figures show that of 104 accidents, only 34 were due to operator inexperience. And only nine of those involved operators younger than 17.

Once members of the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee saw the numbers, the argument was about something completely different.

To Republican David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, it was about a healthy way to channel youthful energy.

“This is something that keeps children from getting into other kind of trouble when they’re out there on a lake or a river. So, I think it’s something that needs further discussion.”

To Republican Wilton Simpson of New Port Richey, it was about preserving a rural way of life.

“I llive on a farm, and so my children were driving vehicles at 7, 8, 9, 10 years old all over the place. So by the time they were 16, they were driving for already six seven, eight years. I have a place at Homosassa Springs that I enjoy a lot. And if something like this would pass, it would be tragic.”

To Republican Committee Chairman Alan Hays of Umatilla, it was about the heavy hand of government.

“I’m mean there’s a whole host of people out there that are less than 18-years-old, less than 16-years-old, that are going to be disenfranchised if you will, or at least they are going to be denied the operators privilege, if this bill passes.”

And to Republican Travis Hutson of Palm Coast, it was about the Nanny State and individual freedom.

“There are 14-year-olds where the only freedoms or liberties they have is to get out on the St. Johns River, or to get out on the Intracoastal with these vessels. I don’t see an alarming rate of accidents from the state analysis that would cause us to just go ahead and change this law today.”

And to American Watercraft Association lobbyist Peggy Matthews, it was about a potential threat to the industry’s bottom line.

Ring didn’t get any progress with an amendment that would have let 14-year-olds behind the controls if an adult is sitting on back. A day after postponing his bill in committee, Ring decided to pull it out of the water for this year.

Now he’s deciding how to break the news to the high school sponsors.

“It’s how the process works. Not every bill has to pass. It happens. We have to convince not just me. You have to convince 39 other Senators and 120 state reps and a governor. So, it’s a big undertaking.”

Meanwhile, Ring says his 15-year-old son, an avid jet skier, is rejoicing.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.