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More enforcement of existing laws needed on Georgia lakes

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Sunset Cove on Lake Lanier on a Saturday following the fatal boat crash that killed two kids in waters near the famous party spot.

     Lake Lanier has been in the news a good bit lately. Unfortunately, it’s not for people enjoying hot days in cool water.

     The news has been tragic with two brothers killed in a June 18 boat wreck, when the pontoon boat they were on with family members was struck by a fishing boat, driven by a reportedly intoxicated driver.

     This was followed quickly by two other boating incidents where people were less seriously injured.

     And those accidents were followed by yet another incident, when a man on a personal watercraft (jet-ski) hit two children being pulled on an inflatable tube behind a boat. (For dedicated landlubbers, such tubing is a common lake-surface recreation). The children and man were part of the same group out together on the lake. No alcohol was suspected in this accident, but one of the kids was fairly seriously injured.

     What is alarming is that many regular boaters, water skiers and fisherman are not surprised by this wave of crashes. In fact, we know several people whose comments were more to the tune of surprise that boating accidents don’t happen more often on the 37,000-acre reservoir.

     Part of the problem is just the volume of users. The DNR estimates more than 7 million people are on Lake Lanier every year.

But another contributing factor is the wild West attitude of boaters on the lake. Even before state budget cuts, Lanier was dangerously under-patrolled––a regrettable situation in hindsight

     A report in the AJC said rangers who patrol Lanier had only six watercraft when times were good. Now, due to state cutbacks, they are down to four working boats and lack the manpower to operate more than four boats in any event.

     Picture a city with 7 million people visiting each year, spread out over miles of coast, with only four regular patrol units on duty. Counties with coasts on Lanier also supply patrols to supplement state rangers.

     Adding to potential hazards is the fact that rules on the water are not clearly defined. Obviously there are no stop signs or marked lanes or even clear-cut routes. Some people may cross open areas east to west while others fly along with tubers in tow, going north to south in the same vicinity.

      And with boats, there is nothing like the kind of driver’s training you must master with an automobile before legally getting behind the wheel. In fact, about the only limit on who can drive a private boat is that you be an adult and that you not be intoxicated.

     Even if you’ve never even paddled a canoe before, chances are you can rent a remarkably fast motorized boat and drag water skiers around a Georgia lake.

     Of particular concern is the alcohol that seems to go hand-in-hand for many with days spent at the lake. Alcohol is not suspected in the second accident but is suspected to be a factor in the first.

     But the weekend following the deaths of the two brothers found crowds out in force on Lake Lanier and in traditional party spots like Sunset Cove, where beer stands dot the shore. The mood was far from somber.

     A look at DNR statistics shows that boating under the influence (BUI) is not a new problem. In 2011 on Georgia lakes, there were 168 BUIs. Some 109 boating accidents produced 66 injuries and 11 fatalities. Of those accidents, 18 involved alcohol.

     The year 2010 saw139 BUIs, with boating accidents involving 74 injuries and 16 fatalities. No data was recorded on accidents involving alcohol.

     Looking at the statistics, it is shocking to learn how common such boating accidents as the one that claimed the two brothers can be.

     To keep Georgia safe on the water, the legislature needs to see DNR rangers have what they need for putting some controls on those using the lake. Expecting operators of fast boats to be sober and to drive in a manner that keeps others safe isn’t too much to ask. And exacting fines from those who don’t comply should help fund the enforcement manpower needed to make Georgia lakes safe for all.

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