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New boating safety laws have helped keep Lanier safe
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Dan and Linda Ellington float around the cove off Old Federal Park on Wednesday afternoon at Lake Lanier’s southern end. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Boater safety laws

All of the provisions of the “Jake and Griffin Prince BUI Law” took effect this year, including lowering the allowed blood-alcohol content to 0.08 for boaters, to match DUI laws for drivers. But part of the “Kile Glover Boat Education Law” will kick in next year.

Starting July 1, 2014, vessel operators born on and after Jan. 1, 1998, and those who rent personal watercraft are required to take and pass a boater safety education class. The class, which can be done online, must be approved by the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR and U.S. Coast Guard both offer classes.

Some are exempt from the education regulation, including anyone licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard as a master of a vessel, people operating on a private lake or pond and nonresidents who have proof they have passed a similar exam.

Source: The Department of Natural Resources

Through mid-August, Lake Lanier has boasted one of its safest, least accident-riddled summers in several years, statistics with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources show.

DNR Sgt. Mike Burgamy said new laws, including a lowered BUI limit from 0.10 to 0.08, have been “aggressively enforced,” and that public awareness campaigns have helped keep citations down.

“Public awareness and education (have) really played a big part. The public seems to be more aware of dangers of boating and alcohol, how that can relate to injuries and death,” he said.

But one factor was beyond the control of the legislature and law enforcement — a summer of seemingly endless rain.

“We’ve had a lot of rain this year, and that has definitely contributed to a decrease in use on the lake. It also just so happens (the rain has) been a lot on the weekends,” Burgamy said.

Kim Martin is coordinator of the Safe Kids Coalition, a child safety advocacy group, with Lake Lanier safety a strong emphasis.

Martin agreed that while weather has been a factor, she was content with the decline in incidents.

“Just last week we had a coalition meeting, and DNR did report that BUI violations were down, as well as life jacket citations were down this year, which is great. Weather I’m sure played a part, limiting activities on the water. Still, it was a busy summer season, and we try to keep our life jacket stations stocked, partnering with (the) U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, we handed out materials, we tried to reach other audiences.”

Martin said she perceived the law as being more successful than, for example, a 2011 law change in child safety restraint that perhaps received less publicity.

“We’ve really tried to push awareness of the new boating law, as we do any time there’s new legislation involving children’s safety — social media, our partners with DNR, Corps of Engineers,” Martin said. “I do feel like people are more aware of this law change than they have been in the past, based on the child restraint law that changed in 2011. I believe it has from my own personal conversations with visitors, there was a lot of media coverage about it, the fatalities, the Prince brothers and Kile Glover — I feel like people more were in tune to this law change.”

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 deaths prompted the legislation, and added a heightened emotional appeal to lake safety awareness.

Burgamy said he’s noticed an increased tendency for boat operators to volunteer they have an established designated driver — partaking in very few alcoholic beverages, or abstaining entirely — as a sign of increased awareness.

“We pull a boat over, the captain will be driving, and without even asking, they’ll say, ‘I’m the designated operator,’” he said.

Burgamy said in-class participation of boater education courses looks to be on par with past years but said he didn’t have figures for online class participants.

The DNR offers classes where a ranger will teach face-to-face in a classroom and an online class. Other agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, offer similar courses and options.

Patricia Lindsey, flotilla commander for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, teaches a boating safety class every month in Flowery Branch, and said classes have been at their 30-student capacity, citing the new law and emphasis on safety for the increase.

“We love it,” she said of the legislation and increased awareness. “Our whole thing is safety on the water — that’s what our class is called. And it’s so important because you can’t possibly know boat safety if you haven’t been taught anything about handling a boat.”

Lindsey said the most egregious violators are young people on personal watercraft, such as Jet Skis or Sea-Doos.

“These young kids on PWCs ... they’ll be jumping peoples’ wakes from boats, for example, and that’s in violation of the law,” she said.

Starting next July 1, vessel operators born on and after Jan. 1, 1998, and those who rent personal watercraft are required to take and pass a boater safety education class.

Burgamy said the specifics of the law’s education requirement are still unclear.

“They really don’t have that part of the law hammered out yet. They’re working on the specifics, specifically referring to will they have to have a full-blown class, or something condensed. Either way, it will be a time where certainly we’re going to give guidance where we can give guidance,” he said.

Safe Kids has begun to gear up for the education requirement in 2014, Martin said.

“All the information that we distributed has included information about that requirement, which was close to around 50,000 water safety cards,” Martin said. “I’ve already had people ask, ‘How do we get this class? I want my son or daughter to take this class,’ so we went ahead and tried to incorporate that into the information we got out this year, that way they can take an online course over the wintertime, take advantage of that before spring is upon us.”

And with the final summer holiday around the corner, DNR is prepared for a busy weekend. Unlike past holiday weekends, the weather is looking agreeable.

“We’re expecting the weather to be good, and with that, the lake to be busy,” Burgamy said of Labor Day weekend. “We’ll have six patrol boats out with two rangers in each boat. Some of them will be partnered with a Gwinnett County police officer — that’s a partnership we’ve had for several years.

There will be another eye above the lake as well.

“We’ll have aviation up there spotting violations one day this weekend,” he said.

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