What you need to know about proposed law inspired by missing Tequesta teens

Candles burn as night falls at the Jupiter Inlet, where Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen took their small boat out on July 24, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)
Candles burn as night falls at the Jupiter Inlet, where Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen took their small boat out on July 24, 2015. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

A proposed law could help improve boater safety, and it’s inspired by two missing boys who were lost at sea this summer.

Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen were 14 when they went missing in July after leaving the Jupiter Inlet on a 19-foot boat.

Austin’s father, Blu Stephanos, is backing a proposed law that could help prevent something like what happened to his son from happening to someone else.

Here’s what you need to know about the proposed law:

What would it do? The bills (SB 746, HB 427) would reduce boat registration fees by about 25 percent for boaters who purchase and register either an emergency position indicator radio beacon (EPIRB) or a personal locator beacon. For boats between 16 feet and 26 feet, the most common in Florida, the savings would cut the annual state fee from $33.50 to $28.75, the Palm Beach Post has reported.

Who is behind the bills? Two Palm Beach County legislators have proposed the bills: state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district includes a piece of northern Palm Beach County; and state Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta.

State Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, stands with Blu Stephanos at a Dec. 15, 2015, Palm Beach County Commission meeting. (staff photo/Eliot Kleinberg)
State Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, stands with Blu Stephanos at a Dec. 15, 2015, Palm Beach County Commission meeting. (staff photo/Eliot Kleinberg)

Where do the bills stand now? Both bills are moving through the Legislature’s pre-session committee process. Florida’s legislative session begins in January, which is when the bills will be debated and possibly passed.

What happens next? If both Florida’s House and Senate approve the bills, and Gov. Rick Scott signs off, the law would go into effect July 1, 2016.

Who else is supporting the bills? The Palm Beach County Commission voted unanimously this week to give its support to the proposed law.

How would it be promoted? Negron and Magar have said the state’s Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles would run a promotional campaign. Blu Stephanos said the AustinBlu Foundation, started in memory of his son, would help promote the law as well.

These devices can be pricey. Why not offer a state rebate or other incentive to buy them? Negron and Magar say the registration-fee incentive could mean a reduction in up to $5 million coming to the state, where rebates could be far costlier. They expect people will be more interested in this incentive program. “People are very motivated when … they can get a discount on something,” Negron told the Palm Beach Post in November.

Isn’t there another boater safety bill proposed as well? Yes. That bill would raise the age limit for operating a personal watercraft, and possibly serve as a first step toward creating a minimum boating age. However, the families of both Austin and Perry said they do not agree with the bill. “I’ve spent enough nights beating myself up about what I could’ve done and what I should’ve done,” Blu Stephanos told The Palm Beach Post in November. “My son was 14 years old and he could drive a boat better than anyone … knowledge and just having the right stuff on the boat makes all the difference in the world.”

Read more about the proposed law.

Palm Beach Post staff writer John Kennedy contributed to this report.

Father of missing Tequesta teen to promote new boating legislation

Perry Cohen (left) and Austin Stephanos, disappeared after sailing out of Jupiter Inlet
Perry Cohen (left) and Austin Stephanos, disappeared after sailing out of Jupiter Inlet

The father of missing Tequesta teen boater Austin Stephanos is slated to come Wednesday to the state Capitol to promote a measure aimed at enhancing boating safety.

Blu Stephanos is scheduled to be joined by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to discuss a legislative proposal that would reduce annual registration fees for boaters who purchase emergency locator devices for themselves or their vessels.

Blu Stephanos has started a foundation called AustinBlu to increase boater safety through education and technology, including requiring emergency beacons on boats.

Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, both 14, sailed out of Jupiter Inlet on July 24. Their capsized boat was found days later near Daytona Beach.

“While government cannot prevent these horrific incidents, we can and should do more to encourage boaters to have solid safety precautions in place as they enjoy time on Florida’s coast and waterways,” Negron said.

The tragedy involving the Tequesta teenagers also helped inspire separate legislation (SB 644) that would raise the age limit for operating personal watercraft — possibly as a first step toward creating a minimum boating age.

Florida law sets no age requirement for boaters. State law mandates only that anyone born after Jan. 1, 1988 piloting a vessel of more than 10 horsepower complete an approved safety boating course.

A person must be at least 14 to operate a personal watercraft, such as a Jet Ski, in Florida. But the bill by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, would raise that limit to age 16, although his staff said he wants the measure to spark discussion of setting the same age standard for all boaters.

Just last week, another member of the Stephanos family came out in opposition to the bill.

In a post on Facebook on Oct. 29, Margaux Stephanos, Austin’s aunt, wrote, “We the family, of Austin Stephanos 100% DO NOT AGREE or stand behind this bill being passed.” Read her post here.