Law enforcement officers patrolling Lake Lanier this summer say lake visitors so far appear more safety conscious than last year.
Department of Natural Resources officials and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park rangers are finishing up Operation Dry Water today, an initiative by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators to increase visibility and enforcement of boating under the influence laws before the Fourth of July holiday.
DNR Capt. Thomas Barnard said there are more people on the lake this summer, something he attributes to the high lake level, yet there have been fewer accidents compared with last year.
Public education and awareness have proved helpful in keeping accidents and deaths to a minimum. Other factors may include the new boating laws that just took effect, increased enforcement and lessons learned from high profile fatalities last summer, he said.
“The biggest thing for me is the awareness,” Barnard said. “We’ve had so much coverage on it, I think that has really brought (it) to light to the boating public about the new changes.”
DNR statistics for the first half of this year, through June 26, show eight boating incidents and 19 boating under the influence citations, compared with 19 incidents and 31 citations for the same period last year.
There have been three fatal boating incidents and one drowning this year. None of the victims were wearing life jackets.
“We’re the No. 5 most-visited lake in the U.S. with 7.5 million visitors a year,” said Nicholas Baggett, Corps of Engineers’ natural resource manager for Lanier. “Learn to swim. Wear a life jacket. One of the biggest things I push, because I’m a parent, is watch your children.”
For all 12 months of 2012, there were 36 boating incidents, five fatal boating accidents and five drownings, according to DNR figures. Authorities handed out 60 BUI citations.
At least three of last year’s boating fatalities were children. Jake and Griffin Prince of Buford died after a fishing boat hit the boat they were on. Eleven-year-old Kile Glover, stepson of entertainer Usher and son of Ryan Glover, an executive for Bounce TV, died last July after the tube he was riding on was run over by a personal watercraft.
The 2013 boating regulations Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law in April lowered the legal blood alcohol rate for vessel operators; raised the children’s age requirement for life jackets; clarified age restrictions for operation of different types of vessels; and added a mandatory education course that takes effect in 2014.
The legal blood alcohol limit for boat operators now is the same as people driving a car, 0.08, and imposes escalated penalties for repeat offenders. The limit was lowered from 0.10.
While area park attendants were expected to hand out boating safety handbooks and fliers on the new laws this weekend, DNR officers had planned to set up a mobile alcohol breath test station at a park in Gwinnett County, and use helicopters and undercover agents to catch violators.
The helicopters spot moving violations and help direct patrol units to problem areas. DNR is also using two more patrol boats for enforcement.
Baggett said the lake is a “unique creature” that doesn’t seem to have a rhyme or reason to its accidents.
“We could go out and talk to a million people and have 50 people drown on the lake that year,” he said. “Next year, we could go out and talk to 100 people and have one fatality on the lake.”
But the agencies spend a lot of time on water safety education. The corps has two boats it uses for lake patrols and its works closely with the DNR, Baggett said. The agency doesn’t use alcohol breath tests or make arrests.
“Right now, I think we have more than 100,000 water safety contacts,” Baggett said. “We have a water safety coordinator. All our rangers are expected to know about water safety, promote it by talking to kids, adults.”