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Our Views: Let’s keep Lanier a safe destination for boaters

Laws alone aren’t enough to avoid danger; it takes everyone practicing proper safety habits on lake

POSTED: June 2, 2013 1:00 a.m.

It’s official: Lake Lanier is a fresh-water boating paradise.

That’s why Gainesville recently was featured as one of the top 10 most boat-friendly towns in America in the June-July issue of Boat U.S. Magazine. As the summer season gets underway on Lanier, now at full pool after last year’s drought, it’s certainly a status to celebrate.

Yet we do so soberly. Because just as the season had begun, a reminder of the dangers of boating already were staring us in the face.

The holiday weekend hadn’t even officially begun before midnight on Friday, May 24, when a boat and a personal watercraft collided near Old Federal Park. Two people on the watercraft were hurt and required hospitalization with various injuries.

The larger boat involved in the collision fled the scene, discovered a day or so later to be driven by a teen who turned himself in when his father found the damage. Investigators are still reconstructing the accident, and charges may be pending. But this incident and others show why Georgia leaders felt the need to tighten boating safety laws this year.

We saw it more than once last year: A late night boating accident, a tragic consequence, and yet another reminder of the dangers faced after dark on the lake. This time, fortunately, no lives were lost. But the message needs to be received.

Last year’s litany of tragedies led to the deaths of three youngsters and 10 people overall, some of them thought to be caused by boat operators driving after drinking. That’s why the legislature passed, and Gov. Nathan Deal signed, the law lowering the blood alcohol standard for BUI to .08, matching that of the minimum allowed on the highways.

Another change: Children younger than 13 must wear life jackets when on a moving boat.

Laws changing next year include requiring education for anyone renting a vessel as well as for people born on or after Jan. 1, 1998, who want to operate a vessel. Such a boating safety course must be approved by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

It’s clear all of those changes, and more, are needed. As Lanier gets more crowded and boat traffic increases, the dangers do as well.

When highways are more clogged, there are more accidents. An incremental increase in traffic is even more of an issue on the lake, where there are no lanes, traffic lights or road signs to guide operators, nor street lights to illuminate the way. And most boat pilots aren’t commuting or headed to the grocery story but are out for a good time, when hot sun and strong beverages can cloud judgment.

Lanier’s full pool this summer has helped cover up some of the natural obstacles hiding beneath its depths but may create others, particularly as boats push closer to the shorelines. Fold in water scooters driven by young operators, some of them pre-teens, plus water-skiers, paddleboarders, windsurfers and other sporting folk and you have a Wild West recipe of high-riding cowboys, no matter how many rules there are.

And that comes with very few sheriffs to enforce those rules. The DNR has a maximum of about 12 officers in six boats patrolling Lanier’s 38,000 acres on a busy weekend. Hall and Forsyth counties each have a couple of boats on the water. And that doesn’t account for midweek traffic when patrols are thinner but boat traffic can remain heavy.

When accidents do occur, the ability to locate and get help to the injured is much more difficult than on a major highway. It’s a big lake, and finding an injured boater in the vast darkness is difficult. The precious minutes it takes to reach the scene can make the difference to someone who is badly hurt.

All these factors combine to make the water a dangerous place when the proper precautions aren’t taken.

If Lake Lanier is to remain a place boaters love to navigate, it must be made safer. Yet there are only so many laws that can be passed and a limited number of officers to enforce them. It falls to those who visit and play on Lanier to do their part to lessen the dangers.

That starts with responsible alcohol use. Some boat operators may think a few beers won’t affect their reflexes or ability to drive safely. That’s not the case, especially after dark when obstacles and other watercrafts are harder to see and reaction times are limited. Remember, there are no brakes on a large speedboat flying down the lake at high speeds.

Boaters should respect the lake and its dangers by slowing down during busy periods, especially after dark. All running lights should be on and in working order, and stick to familiar channels. And always make sure boat passengers, particularly those younger than 13, have a life jacket on in case they do wind up in the water.

The habits of boat safety aren’t complicated or hard to follow. The consequences of an accident, though, can be life-changing.

We’ve seen enough accidents and lives lost on our beautiful lake. Boat U.S. Magazine knows what a great place Lanier can be. All who travel its waters should do their part to make sure it stays that way.


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