First came the deaths of brothers Griffin and Jake Prince of Buford on June 18 when a fishing boat slammed into the pontoon boat they rode with 11 other people. The driver of the fishing boat, Paul J. Bennett of Cumming, was charged with boating under the influence.
Less than a month later, two youngsters were seriously injured when run over by a personal watercraft while they were riding in an inner tube behind a boat. One of those children died Saturday.
And back on April 21, a boat collision resulted in the death of Stephen Blake Jones of Duluth and injured his passenger, Sharon Ezell. Steven Brent Parker of Cumming was charged with homicide by vessel and BUI in that incident.
So far this year, six people have died on the lake, two by drowning. Last year, there were 17 deaths on the lake.
But while we can’t take this year’s incidents as a sign that the danger has peaked, it’s clear lake safety needs to be addressed. Though it’s impossible to avoid all tragedies, the frequency of boat collisions indicates an ongoing problem.
Longtime Lanier residents and boaters say the increase in boat traffic and reckless nature of many who visit has made lake travel more dangerous. Many won’t go out at night because of it, and others say tougher measures need to be taken.
Doing so, however, isn’t easy. About 8 million visit each year to enjoy 38,000 acres of water and 500 miles of shoreline. Law enforcement agencies from the state and the counties the lake touches (Hall, Forsyth, Gwinnett and Dawson) can’t possibly monitor all activity on the massive reservoir.
Some believe tighter boating rules will help. After the Prince tragedy, Gov. Nathan Deal proposed lowering the blood alcohol limits for boating under the influence to 0.08 percent, matching that on state highways. Legislative leaders have promised to introduce the bill in next year’s session, and Hall County’s lawmakers already are on board.
Making Lanier safer clearly is a priority, but legislation is just one step toward a solution. Changing the BUI limits, for instance, could help catch more violators, but won’t solve the problem alone. For one thing, not all incidents involve alcohol, such as the tubing accident. And tougher laws won’t help law officers who have their hands full trying to enforce those already in place.
The other problem is that many who visit the lake lack the savvy to practice safe boating. Because anyone is allowed to operate a watercraft without a license, no formal instruction is required. Many of Lanier’s boaters do not know or practice rules of safety and courtesy.
Capt. Harry Chapman of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office’s volunteer-based Reserve Unit is among those who believe boat operators should be licensed to make sure they have that basic knowledge before they hit the water.
State Sen. Butch Miller (R-Flowery Branch) is willing to push that idea as well. “There has got to be boater education and boater responsibility, and the DUI laws should mirror those who are in automobiles,” he said.
The lake’s popularity has made traffic increasingly harder to manage. Hundreds of boats flock to popular areas on weekends, including personal watercrafts (a.k.a., Jet Skis), skiers, tubers and folks frolicking in the water. Add alcohol, a blinding, hot sun and the occasional pop-up lightning storm and a dangerous situation can boil up at any time.
Some longtime lakegoers say common courtesy among boaters has degraded considerably, many buzzing docks and other boaters out of carelessness or arrogance. All it takes is a small minority of these daredevils to create havoc.
And problems sometimes occur on shore. Last Sunday, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ranger was punched by a man to whom he was issuing a citation for having alcohol in a prohibited area. Tim Rainey, the corps operations manager for Lanier, says rangers have been used to patrol lake parks that have become more overcrowded and rowdy.
With law enforcement strapped to keep close watch on such a wide area, it’s up to everyone to take a role in keeping the lake safe. Boaters, take time to learn about your craft, the lay of the lake and common rules. Those who ski or ride personal watercraft must take extra precautions. Just because you have the money to rent a high-powered craft doesn’t make you an expert on operating it.
This is a case where more laws can only do so much. Keeping the public safe is one of government’s key roles, but it can’t head off all tragedies if some people aren’t willing to put safety first.