Boater education is the key to safety on Lake Lanier — that was the primary message that rose Saturday from the Gainesville public hearing held by the Lake Lanier Legislative Caucus.
The hearing was lightly attended, but several people spoke about their concerns and offered suggestions.
Several state legislators attended the meeting to hear from residents and local lake associations, among them Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville; Rep.-elect Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville; Rep. Valerie Clark, R-Lawrenceville; and Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford.
Another public hearing was held Saturday in Buford.
“The three or four of the biggest issues continue to resonate throughout the meetings and hearings,” Miller said.
The top concerns were education, life jacket regulations and blood alcohol laws.
Terry Kuehn, a member of the Lake Lanier Association said young people need education before operating vehicles on the lake and should be offered classes in the summer or at the boat show. Teenagers ages 16 and older are allowed to operate any boat in Georgia if they have proper identification, according to the Department of Natural Resources website.
“I propose that we put banners on several of the bridges and they can be rotated around,” Kuehn said, suggesting frequently ignored laws be printed on them for all to see.
Kuehn said his boat was damaged as he was refueling the vessel at the dock when a larger boat came near and broke the 100-foot rule, which makes it illegal to jump the wake of another boat within 100 feet. It also prohibits boats from going faster than idle speed around or within 100 feet of another vessel unless it’s meeting or overtaking another boat in compliance with the rules of the road.
“There’s a lack of knowledge generally,” said Ed McGill, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, a civilian branch of the agency made of volunteers that help ensure recreation boating safety. The auxiliary flotilla at Lanier Lake has more than 100 members and currently has about 14 vessels.
Kim Martin also agreed about the need for education, but she also stressed the need for Georgia to change the law so older children will be required to wear life jackets. The Gainesville nurse is the Safe Kids Coordinator for Gainesville/Hall County. Safe Kids is a global, nonprofit organization that seeks to protect children from unintended injuries.
Martin’s coalition, led by Northeast Georgia Medical Center & Health System, Inc., gives out life jackets to children and has eight life jacket launch stations in Hall and Gwinnett counties, with some in Forsyth County.
After going out on patrol with local enforcement agencies, Martin said the consistent excuse from parents whose kids aren’t wearing life jackets is that they don’t know the law. Georgia law requires that all children under age 10 to wear a personal flotation device.
Many of the speakers at the public hearing supported making the law for boating under the influence mirror the driving under the influence law, but a couple of people said that changing the blood alcohol limit from 0.08 from 0.10 would not help control alcohol abuse on the lake.
Lt. Col Jeff Weaver with the Department of Natural Resources said DNR is one of the first responders to incidents on the lake and catching violators is easier with more people patrolling the large body of water. Lanier had a summer of tragedy, including two incidents early in the season — one that killed two Buford boys, Griffin and Jake Prince, and a second that killed a boy reported to be the stepson of entertainer Usher — that drew regional to international attention.
Major Walter Rabon told the Hall County legislative delegation during the prelegislative conferences Thursday that DNR has 12 rangers today, down from 60 in the early 1990s. Gwinnett County partnered with rangers this summer in a boating safety initiative.
“If municipalities or agencies are interested in doing that, we’d be glad to entertain it,” Weaver said.
Other issues discussed included speed limits, docking and navigation lights and boat titling.