Gov. Nathan Deal is pushing legislation to improve boating safety in Georgia, spurred by a June boating accident on Lake Lanier that killed two Buford boys.
The pontoon the boys were on was hit by a boater who has been charged with being under the influence of alcohol.
“The legislation is designed to address and prevent these kinds of tragedies in the future,” Deal said in an exclusive interview with The Times. “People recognize that this needs to be addressed.”
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, would change boating under influence laws to more closely mirror driving under the influence laws, phase in safety education courses and raise the life jacket requirement age to 13 years old from 10. Miller is expected to introduce the bill on the floor of the Senate this week.
“It will have strong support,” Miller said.
The proposed law would lower the legal blood alcohol limit for adults operating boats and personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis, from .10 to .08, the same for operating a vehicle. Penalties would also closely follow those for DUIs so that offenders, especially repeat offenders, are escalated from a misdemeanor charge to a felony. Georgia is currently one of just eight states with a higher blood alcohol limit for boating than driving.
“That’s something the department has long wanted,” said Rick Lavender, communications/outreach specialist for the Department of Natural Resources.
Boating statistics from DNR show that between January and August 15, 2012, there were 56 people cited for BUIs and 29 boating incidents on Lake Lanier. There were four fatalities and 13 injuries.
Two of those fatalities were Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13, from Buford. They were killed after a 21- to 22-foot center console fishing boat rammed into the 17-passenger pontoon boat their family and three other families were riding on last June.
Paul J. Bennett, 44, has been charged with eight counts of homicide by vessel, boating under the influence, failing to render aid and reckless operation of a vessel. He has a tentative trial date of May 20.
Another death on Lake Lanier last summer also drew regional and international attention. Eleven-year-old Kile Glover, stepson of musician Usher, died after he was run over by a personal watercraft.
The legislation would require vessel operators born on or after Jan. 1, 1998, to complete a boater safety education course. Deal said courses would be available free of charge online.
People who rent vessels of 10 horsepower or more would undergo a safety briefing, such as watching a video. The education requirement would take effect in July 2014 to allow time to educate the public on the new rule.
“It’s important for us to add an education safety course,” Deal said.
Also included in the bill is a change to Georgia’s life jacket law, clarification of the restrictions on the type of vessels children and teens are allowed to operate, updates to navigational lighting regulations and a lowering of the blood alcohol limit of hunters from .10 to .08.
“It’s just good public policy,” Miller said. “There is no downside to this legislation.”
Georgia’s current law requires children under 10 years old to wear a personal flotation device; that would change to 13 years old, which is a U.S. Coast Guard recommendation. Children under 12 can operate a boat with less than 30 horsepower if accompanied by an adult. Adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 are barred from operating a vessel over 16 feet in length, but are allowed to operate a personal watercraft, or a boat if it’s less than 16 feet, provided they’ve completed boater education or are accompanied by an adult.
Georgia has a $2.1 billion recreational boating industry.