While the unofficial kickoff to summer is always a time of celebration, Memorial Day 2012 proved tragic for those involved in the 27 boating under the influence violations, 14 boating incidents — resulting in seven injuries — and two drownings across Georgia’s public lakes.
This year, officials with DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary are hoping to keep those on the water safe with safety checks, boat inspections and law enforcement.
New laws taking effect this year will tighten safety regulations for Georgia boaters, including lowering the alcohol limit for boating under the influence and requiring life jackets for anyone younger than 13 in a moving vessel.
“This is an exciting time. Memorial Day weekend is the kickoff of the boating season and we are looking forward to a very safe and enjoyable boating season this year,” said DNR Lt. Col. Jeff Weaver. “Last year and over the years, we’ve had far too many fatal tragedies on our waterways — unexcusable — and a lot of those are due to alcohol-related incidents. Last year, the governor vowed and the legislature vowed to make a difference and make it safer on the waters for all boaters.
“Now, our blood alcohol limit has been reduced from 0.10 to 0.08. So that’s a huge change. Now, it’s the same on the water as it is the roadway. … Also, some other landmark legislation came out of this bill.”
In addition to life jackets and alcohol limits, the Georgia General Assembly added a boater education requirement to take effect July 2014.
This weekend, however, the lower alcohol limit and youth life jacket law will be enforced. Other areas of focus for DNR law enforcement officials will include reckless boating activities, such as jumping the wake of another vessel within 100 feet, operating at speeds greater than conditions allow, overloading a vessel and improper passing of other vessels.
“Our plan for this Memorial Day weekend is what we do typically,” said DNR Capt. Johnny Johnson. “We’ll divide the lake into zones and we will divide Allatoona into four zones. We will have four boats patrolling over the holiday weekend with eight rangers.
“First and foremost, they will be looking for boating under the influence and reckless operation violations — those type of serious violations is what we focus on — 100-foot law violations, those type of things. We’ll be looking at safety equipment after we approach a vehicle, that’s pretty routine so we tell people to check those things before coming out on the lake. Our No. 1 goal, as the lieutenant colonel said, is safety. That’s what we demand and ask of people. With that, we will be out here in force. Expect to see us. We want to keep everyone safe and have an enjoyable holiday weekend.”
Above all, DNR and other organizations with a presence on the lake are urging boaters to take all precautions while boating this weekend. Officials suggest that everyone on the water wear a life jacket at all times, be aware of surroundings, come to the lake prepared with all safety equipment, check navigational lighting before getting on the water, become familiar with boating laws and always designate a sober boat operator.
“The weather dictates how busy the weekend will be, but we will have a lot of boat traffic, all the campgrounds will be full this weekend and there will be a lot of people on the water,” said DNR Cpl. Byron Young. “Just pay attention to what’s around you. Obviously, knowing the laws is important before you get on the water and when there’s a lot of traffic out here it can get really congested. Allatoona is not a very wide lake like Lake Lanier. We’ve got some narrow spots where boats converge. So it’s important to know what side of the channel you should be on. Lights are another big thing. Anytime you’re out at night you’ve got to have your navigation lights on.
“It’s very dangerous to be operating at night without lights where other boats can’t see you. A lot of our fatalities happen at night.”
USACE park rangers also reminded those at Thursday’s event about their Life Jacket Loaner program with life jackets for public use at all USACE sites as well as the Ranger Card program available to youth 15 and younger. The Ranger Card program allows for children following all safety precautions at USACE sites to win prizes and collect trading cards featuring local park rangers.
For more information on boating safety, visit www.georgiawildlife.org/boating.