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Florida Boating Law

Whether you are a visitor to Florida waters or a longtime local, it’s important to carefully research all applicable fishing and boating rules and regulations before heading out.

The boating injury lawyers at Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, know boating and fishing laws are fluid, changing as regulators and legislators identify and address emerging or ebbing issues.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) website, http://myfwc.com, is an excellent resource for current information on a variety of state and federal laws, regulations, recommendations and statistics.

As a general rule, it’s important to note state waters extend 3 nautical miles into the Atlantic and Florida Keys. Up to 200 nautical miles beyond that, federal laws apply. In the Gulf of Mexico (relevant to Southwest Florida boaters and anglers), state waters extend 9 nautical miles, beyond which federal laws apply for up to 200 nautical miles.

Florida follows many of the same federal rules, though there are a few variances and in some cases enhanced restrictions and requirements.

While some rules may be deemed more critical to safety than others, any boat operator or owner who skirts the rules may be found negligent if an injury or fatality results. The FWC reports nearly 740 boating accidents occurred in the state in 2013. Many can be attributed to breaches of state and federal regulations.

The agency’s 2013 Uniform Boating Citation Summary indicated 22,300 violations were reported just in 2012 and 2013, which included everything from alcohol and drug use by operators and boating in restricted areas to negligent operation of a vessel and failure to properly register a vessel or craft.

Vessel Registration

In Florida, all vessels – excluding non-motor-powered models less than 16 feet – have to be registered with the local Tax Collector’s Office. Nearly 900,000 vessels were registered in the state as of 2013.

Registrations, which must be secured within one month of purchase, have to be renewed annually, and decals must be properly displayed at all times while the vessel is in Florida waters.

Florida authorities issued 1,080 registration violations in 2013 and 1,350 in 2012 for offenses including:

  • Operation of unregistered/unnumbered vessels
  • Application, certificate, number or decal violation
  • Special manufacturer or dealer numbers
  • Violation relating to vessel titling
  • Violation relating to Hull Identification Numbers
Boating Safety Education Requirements

While Florida does not require boat operators to be licensed in the same way it mandates licenses for motor vehicle drivers, recently-updated rules do require enhanced boater safety education for a growing number of operators.

Specifically, anyone who was born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 and is operating a vessel powered by 10 horsepower or more is required to pass an approved boater safety education course. This will result in the issuance of a boating safety identification card, issued by the FWC, which must be kept onboard at all times the vessel is underway.

The law also requires anyone convicted of two noncriminal boating safety violations in the course of a year must enroll in, pay for, attend and successfully finish a state-approved boater safety education course. The same requirement exists for any boat operator convicted of a criminal boating violation or infraction resulting in a reportable boating accident. For those in this category, the privilege to operate a boat is suspended in state waters until proof of course completion is filed with the FWC.

State authorities report citing 385 boaters for failure to produce boater safety education ID cards in 2013, and 366 violations for the same offense in 2012.

Vessel Speed Restrictions and Safety Equipment Regulations

Any vessel that operates in a speed zone indicated at “Idle Speed – No Wake” has to operate at the minimum speed necessary to maintain headway, while vessels operating in zones labeled “Slow Down – Minimum Wake” have to operate fully off plane and totally settled in the water. At no time is a vessel operator allowed to create a wake that’s excessive or poses a danger to other vessels or people in the water.

State law also requires a host of equipment and lighting requirements for vessel operators, depending on the type and size of vessel, age of passengers and time of day when the vessel is operated. For example, passengers under the age of six have to wear an approved personal floatation device at all times when the vehicle is underway. Vessels that have built-in fuel tanks or enclosed compartments where gas fumes can accumulate have to carry at least one approved fire extinguisher. Vessels less than 16 feet have to carry at least 3 visual distress signals approved for nighttime use when in coastal waters between sunset and sunrise. Meanwhile, larger vessels have to carry at least three daytime and nighttime visual distress signals at all times.

Authorities in Florida have cited vessel operators for violation of equipment and lighting requirements 3,710 times in 2013 and 4,000 times in 2012.

Reckless, Careless and Negligent Operation of a Vessel

State law forbids anyone who operates a vessel in Florida waters to do so with willful disregard for the safety of other people or property. Reckless operation is considered a first-degree misdemeanor.

Additionally, operators must act in a reasonable and prudent manner with regard for all posted restrictions, vessel traffic, divers-down flags and other circumstances in an effort not to put others in danger. Careless operation is considered a noncriminal infraction.

Federal navigation rule violations are also considered breaches of Florida law.

Negligent vessel operation violations were issued 642 times by Florida authorities in 2013 and 804 times in 2012. Violations included:

  • Reckless operation of a vessel
  • Careless operation of a vessel
  • Navigation rule violation resulting in accident
  • Navigation rule violation not resulting in accident
  • Failure to report an accident

State law also prohibits operating a boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Doing so is a criminal violation ranging in severity depending on the circumstances and whether there was any property damage or injury.

State authorities issued more than 300 BUI citations in 2013 and 330 in 2012.

Those who are injured or survivors of those killed as a result of Florida boating law violations should contact an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible.

Contact Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights. There are no fees or costs unless we win. Offices in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Naples and Port Charlotte.

Call 800-646-1210 for a Free Consultation

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