Byline: Lawrence Dennis, Times-Union boating editor
Boating accidents and fatalities were down in Florida in 2000, but while the head of the state's waterborne law-enforcement agency says that's good, he's not celebrating excessively.
"We're certainly glad to see that," said Col. Bob Edwards, head of the Law Enforcement Division of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which took over the duties of the old Florida Marine Patrol two years ago.
"But one year is too little time to judge whether this is a result of our policies, better education or something else," he said. "We'll have to see whether this is a trend."
For the first time in more than a decade, Florida didn't lead the nation in deaths. The 46 people killed in boating-related deaths in 2000 -- down from 58 the year before -- ranked third in the U.S. behind Texas (52) and California (51).
Three of those deaths were in the Northeast Florida area. One occurred last June in a freak accident when an outboard lower unit hit a submerged object and threw the skipper out of the boat. The other two were in Nassau County the following month, one as a result of a collision, and another from drowning.
Georgia was far down the national list with 16 deaths last year. Accidents in Florida were down from 1,292 in 1999 to 1,194 last year.
But, reflecting a national statistic, accidents involving personal watercraft continued to account for a disproportionate percentage of accidents and fatalities, even though that category has shown a marked decline in numbers in Florida since 1995.
"Though PWC account for 13 percent of all registered boats [Florida had 840,684 registered vessels last year], they accounted for 32 percent  of all boating accidents and 20 percent  of fatalities," said Capt. Paul Ouellette of the the FWC's Boating Safety Unit in Tallahassee.
The vast majority of those accidents involved collisions with other vessels (196) or with fixed objects such as docks (67).
As dismal as the figures seem, though, they don't tell the whole story. First, the number of PWC accidents has been steadily declining since a high of 508 in 1995. Secondly, only 26 percent of last year's accidents involved persons operating their own PWC. The rest were attributed to PWC being operated by people who had borrowed them (28 percent) or rented them (46 percent).
Florida, with its millions of tourists every year and its waterways available for use by those tourists, may be the PWC-rental capital of the world, Ouellette said, and help may be on the way in cutting down accidents involving liveried craft.
Last Oct. 1, a law passed by the 2000 session of the Florida Legislature requiring rental businesses offering any vessels to give their customers "pre-ride instruction" before putting the rental into effect. …