New Florida parasailing rules designed to enhance safety

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauFebruary 14, 2014 

Parasailing Accidents

In this Sept. 24, 2012 photo, two people parasail over Miami Beach, Fla. Soaring high above the ocean off South Beach, tethered only by a rope to a boat hundreds of feet below, riding in a parasail is at once exhilarating and oddly peaceful, even quiet. For millions of people, that's the takeaway from a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But every year there are accidents, some of them fatal. The Parasail Safety Council, which tracks injuries and deaths from the activity nationwide, reports more than 70 people have been killed and at least 1,600 injured between 1982 and 2012, out of an estimated 150 million parasail rides during those 30 years. Despite the inherent risk, few federal or state safety regulations exist for parasailing. In Florida, which has by far the largest number of parasail operators at about 120, repeated efforts to enact new rules following fatal accidents have landed with a thud. Florida is seen by safety proponents as a national bellwether because of parasailing's popularity in the state. (AP Photo/Tony Winton)

TONY WINTON — ASSOCIATED PRESS

TALLAHASSEE -- Crystal White was enjoying an "amazing" parasailing adventure with her sister, Amber, in Pompano Beach on a summer day in 2007 when something went horribly wrong.

The wind picked up, pulled the boat to shore and the rope attaching the parasail to the boat snapped. The two young girls first slammed into a beach hotel and then a tree.

White, now 24, sustained a head trauma and other injuries but survived.

Amber died two days later, just before her 16th birthday.

"We can't let this happen to someone else," said the girls' mother, a tearful Shannon Hively.

She was joined by Crystal at a press conference Thursday to push for legislation to regulate the parasail industry.

Alexis Fairchild, 17, who sustained brain injuries in a parasail accident in Panama City last July; Alexis' mother, Angelia; and bill sponsors, state Sen. Maria Sachs and state Rep. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, were also at the event.

Hively has been trying to get a bill passed for years, but Sachs, D-Delray Beach, and Clarke-Reed, D-Pompano Beach, say they have support this session from Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Don Gaetz and the parasail industry.

Following Thursday's press conference, the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries passed Senate Bill 320 by a vote of 9-0, with several members wiping their eyes after the parasailing accident victims and their mothers provided their testimony. The House version passed the Business & Professional Regulation Subcommittee by a 12-0 vote Feb. 4.

The measure won't present a burden, according to one Bradenton-area parasailing company.

Bill Diggens, owner of Elite Parasailing on Anna Maria Island, said the proposed limits are "way over our threshold."

"At 15 mph, we shut down," he said of the wind restriction.

Diggens said another recent law change, one placing liability on parasailing boat captains, is probably more effective in deterring accidents. Previously, if a captain refused to take parasailers out in questionable wind or storm conditions, parasailing companies might seek another captain less concerned about safety.

"Now captains can say: 'I'm not going,'" Diggens said.

The law is important to the state tourism industry, Sachs said.

Visitors "trust the state of Florida to have water sports and amusement parks that will be suitable and safe for their children," Sachs said, describing parasailing as an unregulated industry.

Sachs said the proposed bill would institute "common sense regulations," including:

• All operators have a minimum insurance requirement of $1 million;

• Boats stop operating when winds are above 20 mph, gusts are 15 mph or greater and there's a known lightning storm 7 miles away or closer; and

• Would require specific weather equipment on each vessel with access to real-time forecasts.

"The No. 1 risk in parasailing is weather," Sachs said.

The Parasail Safety Council, which has tracked injuries and deaths nationwide for 30 years, reports 73 people were killed and at least 1,600 injured between 1982-2012, during an estimated 150 million parasail rides.

Florida has roughly 120 parasail operators, considered the most in the country, said council founder Mark McCulloh, a parasail inventor and safety expert.

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