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Legislature Debates Watercraft, Touring Devices

Feb. 15, 2006 – After spending all day in discussion, the Legislature's Rules and Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold two bills for further consideration. One bill covers education and safety issues on recreational vessels and one would allow the use of "electric personal assistive devices" in the territory. The devices are currently manufactured by only one company – Segway.
While the recreational vessel bill, sponsored by Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards, covers numerous recreational vessels, the focus Wednesday was on personal watercraft. These vessels carry such brand names as Jet Ski and Wave Runner.
Lucia Francis, who serves as chief of the enforcement division at the Planning and Natural Resources Department, spoke about the danger of using personal watercraft and the need to educate novice operators.
Francis said that laws are needed to avoid shipping people "back in a box."
"One of the key problems is that when you come off the power, there is no steering but it keeps on moving," Francis said.
Kevin Meyer of Wave Raiders, located at Sapphire Beach Resort and Marina, said that people under age 16 cause the biggest problems.
Meyer said that all customers get instruction in how to use personal watercraft, but that for the 20 to 25 percent who are first-time watercraft riders, "I give them a more intensive course."
He said his company experiences very few accidents, and that those are usually caused by people bumping into each other and only the vessel suffers damage.
Also at issue for several senators was the push to pass a bill rather than have Planning and Natural Resources issue regulations.
"I think you already have the authority," Sen. Terrence Nelson said.
Some senators said that imposing stringent educational requirements would seriously impact a business that caters to tourists in the territory.
Sen. Craig Barshinger suggested the personal watercraft industry follow the lead of the diving industry and develop what is called a resort course, a short course of about a half hour that allows people to dive safely.
Meyer pointed out that although Planning and Natural Resources has enforcement powers, when he calls the department because he sees someone violating boating safety laws, no one shows up.
Francis responded by asking the senators to come up with more money so the department could hire more enforcement officers.
She said the department needs 15 more on each island.
Planning and Natural Resources spokesman Jamal Nielsen later said that the enforcement division currently has four on St. Thomas-St. John and six on St. Croix, with four currently studying to become Planning and Natural Resources law enforcement officers.
A few senators mentioned that only three people showed up to testify – Meyer, Francis and Urel Rogers, who owns AR Watercraft at Coki Point. However, several sent letters pointing out flaws in the bill.
In discussing the electric personal assistive mobility devices, Barshinger explained that a St. Thomas company wants to operate tours using the devices.
"Tourism is important to us," said Barshinger, who sponsored the bill. "We'd like to have the same level of exciting things to do as they do in St. Maarten."
The St. Thomas company Caribbean Segway Tours operates tours on St. Maarten.
In response to remarks from Sen. Celestino White that the devices should be licensed like vehicles and operators required to have a driver's license, Barshinger said the devices are closest in concept to electric wheelchairs.
"Except you stand on it and it belongs on a sidewalk," he said.
St. Thomas attorney Leigh F. Goldman, who represented Caribbean Segway Tours, said the devices mimic upright walking. He said they each take up just a little more space than one person, and "are intended to be used as a pedestrian device."
Committee members attending the meeting included Nelson, committee chairman Sen. Ronald Russell, Sen. Pedro Encarnacion, Sen. Juan Figueroa Serville, Sen. Louis P. Hill. Absent were Sen. Lorraine Berry and Sen. Roosevelt David.
Sen. Liston Davis, Barshinger, Richards and White and also attended the meeting.
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