New boating safety rules in effect
by SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Major changes to Georgia’s boating laws are now in effect, and local officials want everyone to be aware of the changes — and boating safety — for Memorial Day weekend.
Last summer’s boating season, with 12 fatalities, was about average for Georgia, but the high-profile deaths of three youths led to the passage of stricter boating laws during the Georgia General Assembly session.
The 2013 season has already gotten off to a deadly start. A man died Tuesday after a boating collision on Lake Jackson — because the operators of the boats didn’t follow boating guidelines, known as the “rules of the road,” according to authorities.
The two major state law changes deal with life jacket requirements for children, and a lower blood alcohol level for boating under the influence.
Children under 13 years old now must wear a life jacket at all times while on a moving boat. That includes a boat that is just drifting, said Keith Waddell, Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ conservation ranger for Coweta and Meriwether counties.
Children must be wearing the life jackets “any time the boat is not anchored down,” Waddell said. Previously, only children under age 10 had to wear life jackets. State law still requires life jackets for everyone on a boat; teens and adults don’t have to wear them.
The law requires a life jacket — officially known as a “personal flotation device” — that is Coast Guard approved. Floaties, foam jackets or foam bathing suit inserts don’t count, unless they are specifically marked as being Coast Guard-approved PFDs.
Drivers of boats are now held to the same standards as drivers of motor vehicles when it comes to driving drunk. The blood alcohol level for BUI is now 0.08, down from 0.1.
Most serious boating accidents involve collisions. State law and the “rules of the road” are designed to prevent collisions.
Boaters and those on personal watercraft are required to stay 100 feet away from other boats, docks, bridges, the shore, swimmers, and anybody in the water if they are going any faster than idle speed. The 100-foot rule does not apply when a boat is overtaking or meeting another vessel in compliance with the rules of the road.
Under the rules of the road, if you are approaching another boat head-on, you should cut to the right. And any vessel with limited maneuverability, such as a sailboat or paddle boat, always has the right-of-way.
The fatal collision on Lake Jackson was the result of a rules of the road violation, according to Waddell.
“They were meeting each other and one went the wrong way,” he said.
Waddell also urges boaters to check their navigation lights before they get on the water. All boats operating at sunset or later must have the red and green bow lights in front and a white stern light on the back that is visible for 360 degrees.
Many people are likely taking out their boats this Memorial Day weekend for the first time this spring, Waddell said. “They don’t think to check their lights … they don’t even think about it until it turns night time,” he said. “Then it’s too late,” because it’s pretty hard to repair your lights on the water.
Not using your lights is a “100 percent, surefire way to get stopped by law enforcement,” he said, and is “probably the most dangerous thing you can do on the lake.”
Lights are “equally as important on a boat as they are on the highway,” he said. There have already been “a few” boating collisions this spring because of boaters not having the proper lights, he said.
The Georgia DNR and the Georgia State Patrol are stepping up enforcement this weekend, Waddell said.
State troopers will be at boat ramps checking drivers.
TEAM Georgia, a safe and sober driving and boating coalition, is encouraging people to designate a boat operator the same as they would designate a driver. Those who register as designated sober operators at www.teamgeorgia.net are eligible to win prizes.
For more information on Georgia boating laws and safety, go to www.GoBoatGeorgia.com/boating/safety.