Injured snorkeler and the boater who hit him want lawmakers to replace diver-down flag with buoy
THEY WERE THE CENTRAL figures in a tragic ocean accident off Palm Beach: Carter Viss, a snorkeler who lost his arm when he was run over by a boat on Thanksgiving Day 2019, and Danny Stanton, the Palm Beacher who was operating the triple-engine boat that struck Viss.
Nearly a year and a half later, the survivor and the man whose 36-foot Yellowfin struck him are working together on a mission to prevent accidents between boaters and divers from ever happening again.
Next spring, they hope to speak together on the Florida House and Senate floors in Tallahassee about changes they want to make to a state law protecting divers and snorkelers.
“If Danny and I can create laws that will save lives and protect the ocean, it proves that positive changes will happen when both sides of a tragedy work together,” Viss said.
Stanton’s role in pushing for new legislation is mandated by the terms of a plea agreement in his criminal case related to the accident. He pleaded “guilty best interest” Nov. 23, 2020, to charges of reckless operation of a vessel, a misdemeanor. (A "guilty best interest" plea'' means a defendant does not admit guilt to any offense, but agrees that a guilty plea is in his best interest under the circumstances.)
He could have been sentenced to up to a year in the county jail. Instead, at Viss’ request, he was sentenced to a year probation during which he must complete two key safety initiatives.
But Stanton, who has been haunted by grief since the accident, said he would be committed to the initiatives even if they were not spelled out in his probation terms.
And he is only happy to work with Viss, who is using his survival story as a platform to raise awareness to marine safety.
“These are all efforts from early on I always intended to do regardless of whether they were required or not. I fully intended to see all these efforts through,’’ Stanton said in an interview.
THEIR FIRST SAFETY INITIATIVE is to make changes to a state law to require the use of a larger and more visible diver down marker on the water.
The marker Viss and Stanton want is a three-dimensional inflatable buoy that would stand 3 feet high, 18 inches wide and be topped with a 1-square-foot dive flag, red with a white diagonal stripe.
Right now, the law only requires divers to use the square-foot flags. Most are mounted on floats and have lead weights at the base to hold them upright. But they’re not always visible, especially in the wind.
“The size of the required dive flag is at times impossible to see, particularly in the ocean,’’ said Stanton, who claims he never saw Viss’ dive flag the day the boat he was piloting hit the snorkeler.
Viss was swimming about 825 feet offshore when he was run over by Stanton’s boat, which was going 50 miles per hour when Stanton tried to throttle down and avoid Viss. The propellers severed Viss’ right arm, inflicted deep cuts and broken bones to his legs and broke his left wrist.
Although the current law allows the use of a three-dimensional buoy as an option to a dive flag, Stanton and Viss want to change the law to require that buoys replace the flags.
The buoy legislation would not change the rules for boats, which are required to show a dive flag at least 20-by-24 inches that is visible from all directions.
Sen. Bobby Powell Jr., D-West Palm Beach, agreed to sponsor the buoy bill, which Viss and Stanton are helping write.
“For something as simple as requiring a buoy to help save a life or save someone from grave danger, I am absolutely willing to work to make sure we get that done,’’ Powell said in an interview.
“This is something that I think is necessary, something that will save people’s lives, and it doesn't cost a whole lot of money.’’
One manufacturer, Brownie’s Marine Group in Pompano Beach, charges $89 for an inflatable buoy. The required float-mounted dive flag costs $30 to $45.
Powell said he hoped to submit the bill during the legislative session scheduled to end April 30. But he said he didn’t because he was unable to find a co-sponsor in the House of Representatives.
Although there is no limit this year on how many bills a state senator can sponsor, Powell said House members were limited to seven bills this session. He said the House members he approached to co-sponsor the buoy bill had already reached their limit.
A bill does not have to be sponsored in both chambers in order to pass, but it does increase its chances of passing.
Powell said he is confident he will be able to find a co-sponsor in the next session, especially if Viss and Stanton can help by sharing with lawmakers their personal experiences in the accident.
“Our goal is next year to have Danny and Carter work with us to find a House sponsor,’’ Powell said. “I think it’s an absolutely necessary bill.’’
Although Viss is disappointed the bill wasn’t considered this session, Stanton said the delay will give them more time to seek input from boaters and divers and to finetune the language.
ONE CONCERN VISS NOTED is whether a buoy will create more resistance for the diver towing it, inhibiting the diving experience.
It will not, said Robert Carmichael, CEO of Brownie’s Marine Group.
Carmichael created his inflatable three-dimensional buoy after a friend lost both legs to a boat while diving a half mile off Fort Lauderdale in 1992. The friend, Broward County paramedic David Lindsey, was diving with the required dive flag.
“It's a failed design,’’ Carmichael said of the current flag. “If the boat is traveling directly with the wind or against the wind, there's almost no chance a boater will see the flag.
“It’s going to fail the boater and it’s going to fail the diver until it is changed.’’
A 3-ft. high inflatable buoy, with a gallon of water at the base acting as a ballast to prevent it from getting knocked over in the wind, is a sensible solution, he said.
“The way people's minds work is if they see an object they tend to avoid it. You can't see the dive flag 50 percent of the time as a boater. The diver is doomed. And most boaters are not actually screwing up. That's the sad part about it,’’ Carmichael said.
“It’s a really bad game of Russian roulette and it's literally three in the chamber, not one in the chamber. It's up to legislators to recognize we got a bad technical law on the books and it's got to change.’’
Carmichael said he would like to work with Powell on the legislation.
He said his company has donated hundreds of buoys to help raise awareness. And he said he has trimmed his profit margin to make them as affordable as possible.
“It’s sad to say, but safety doesn't sell,’’ he said.
One boater said the marine community should support the buoy law.
“It just makes common sense. We are using these two-dimensional dive flags and there’s so much boat traffic out there and extremely fast boats,’’ said Willie Howard, owner of Captain Willie’s Charters.
“Anything that makes divers more visible in the water so we don't have any more conflicts is a great thing.’’
STANTON'S PROBATION COULD END as early as Aug. 23, long before state lawmakers debate the proposed legislation. But Stanton said he intends to work on the bill until it becomes law.
“The possibility of Danny’s criminal case officially being concluded before formal legislation is actually completed is a real possibility,’’ said Doug Duncan, Stanton’s attorney.
“But Danny is committed to this,’’ Duncan said. “He has developed a great relationship with Carter and wants to see this completed. Even if the probation is over, Danny is going to continue with those efforts.’’
Stanton has spoken to Viss once, over the phone in March, since they formally met in person for the first time at Stanton’s sentencing hearing last November. They hugged and shed tears after the hearing and pledged to work together on safety initiatives. They mainly stay in touch via email.
Stanton’s probation also requires him to make a safety video about his experience. Viss plans to participate in that, too.
Stanton, 31, has found a company to make the video under the supervision of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
He is paying for the costs of the video, estimated at $2,000. He’s waiting for FWC to schedule the video shoot.
And as part of the 75 hours of community service he is required to do, Stanton plans to captain his boat on research trips conducted by the Palm Beach Gardens-based American Shark Conservancy.
Although the buoy legislation has the best chance of being the pair’s first safety accomplishment, Viss also wants consideration given to another idea -- requiring boats to go slow if they’re within 1,000 feet of shore.
“Every person I've told about this idea is completely supportive. They're kind of surprised there's not anything like that in place right now. No one has given me a good argument on why that shouldn't be in place,’’ said Viss, 26.
For now, he is trying to be patient while also looking forward to the day when the safety initiatives become law.
“I am assuming this is going to take years to really make something good out of it,'' Viss said. "We are just starting off.''
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