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FWC sets new requirements for airboat operators, spurred by death of University of Miami grad

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@elizabethrkoh

Airboat operators carrying passengers on their boats will soon have more stringent requirements to pilot their vessels, after a deadly crash that killed a University of Miami graduate last year.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved new course requirements Tuesday, following the passage of a law that directed the agency to set new regulations for commercial airboat operators earlier this year. The legislation, named for 22-year-old victim Ellie Goldenberg, requires airboat operators to complete a more comprehensive training course and pass an exam to pilot the powerful boats, which are popular with tourists in the Everglades.

In the last several years, commercial airboat tours have had little official oversight, with no required licenses for operators or specific safety classes. Though airboat operators are currently required to complete a general eight-hour boating safety course, no background checks are required and no education specific to airboating is mandated. The flat-bottomed boats, propelled by powerful airplane-like engines, do need to be registered with the FWC and have basic features like a muffler for the engine’s sound. But insurance is often not required and airboat operators have been otherwise unregulated.

A Miami New Times analysis found more than 75 accidents involving private and commercial airboats in the last three years, with at least seven deaths and more than 100 injuries.

The rule approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission Tuesday will require operators to be certified in CPR and first aid, subject to a fine. Anyone operating an airboat with passengers must also take a course with at least 24 hours of instruction, including 8 hours of classroom time and 14 hours on the water. Courses will be required to cover several topics, including state and federal boating requirements, navigation rules, environmental concerns, ecosystem awareness and the causes and prevention of airboat accidents.

Airboat operators will also have to pass a final exam of at least 50 questions, and course instructors will have their own standards too: at least 120 hours of experience operating an airboat in the last three years and no felony convictions in the last five years.

“Public safety is important to the FWC, and with the Legislature’s guidance, this new rule provides additional requirements for airboat operator courses which will improve safety measures for passengers aboard an airboat for hire,” commission chairman Bo Rivard said in a statement.

The law behind the new rules was approved during this year's legislative session after Goldenberg, a recent theater graduate at the University of Miami, was killed during an Everglades airboat tour last May. The 22-year-old died the day after she received her diploma when, during the tour her family took to celebrate, the craft flipped over and trapped her underneath. The other passengers on the boat and the operator survived.

Blood tests showed the airboat operator, Steven George Gagne, had high levels of THC, the active compound in marijuana. But Gagne was not charged with a crime after prosecutors said they were unable to definitively prove Gagne was piloting recklessly. Among the obstacles in charging Gagne was the fact Florida law does not set a standard for how much THC can be considered operating a vehicle or vessel “under the influence.”

Goldenberg's death spurred her family to push for legislation in Tallahassee that would tighten requirements in airboating. The bill, which was nicknamed “Ellie’s Law,” directed the FWC to set stronger standards for airboat operators and for required courses before they can pilot the crafts.

The rules will go into effect by Jul. 1, 2019.

Goldenberg's father, David, said the rules were a "step in the right direction" but insufficient in addressing his daughter's death. He said he intends to return to lawmakers next year to increase the penalties for violating the new boating requirements to make sure the law "has some teeth."

An earlier version of the legislation made violating the new regulations a more severe second-degree misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for up to 60 days, though it was amended down to a more lenient penalty.

"A misdemeanor means nothing — it's not even a slap on the wrist," he said. He said he also intends to advocate for a law punishing drug use among operators: "Just because there's no marijuana law in Florida yet is not a good enough reason," he said. Gagne "walked off scot free and he killed my daughter."

Photo: The airboat that crashed last year in the Everglades, killing recent University of Miami graduate Ellie Goldenberg. [Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office]

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