According to information provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), 2010 has been a deadly year for people enjoying the scenic beauty of the state’s rivers, lakes and harbors. So far this year, accidents and drowning from the use of boats and personal watercraft have claimed 18 lives — a marked increase from 2009, when there were 11 fatalities all year long. In fact, two accidents on the same day on Lake Murray recently caused three deaths, and one on Lake Wylie cost an eight-year-old North Carolina boy his life.
Even though there is no single identifiable cause for the fatal-accident increase, Coast Guard and SCDNR officials have increased patrols on the state’s waterways in an attempt to prevent further deaths. The hope is that their presence will encourage safer boat operation. While all of South Carolina’s lakes and rivers are under the purview of state and local officials, some of the busiest and most visited areas along the coast and in the lowcountry are receiving particular attention. These include:
- Charleston Harbor
- The Intercoastal Waterway (behind the Isle of Palms)
- Waters surrounding James, Dewees, Sullivan’s, Capers and Morris Islands
- Folley Beach area
- Cooper River
- Ashley River
- Myrtle Beach
A Regional and National Epidemic With Common Denominators
Around the nation, an average of roughly 500 of the estimated 70,000,000 recreational boaters dies annually. Over 70 percent of those drown, and, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol use by operators or passengers was responsible for the vast majority of them. Interestingly, men are nearly four times as likely to die in unintentional drowning as women are.
Since the South Carolina boating season has just “officially” begun, there could easily be twice as many deaths on the water as last year. This is a disturbing trend, and many officials give several typical reasons for boating accidents:
- Improper use of or not wearing lifejackets and other approved flotation devices
- Hypothermia or exposure
- Being tangled in the ropes of inner tubes or water skis
- Boating while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Lack of experience operating boats and personal watercraft
- Increased numbers of people on the water
- Not paying attention to surroundings or failing to see vessels, buoys, docks, piers, swimmers, skiers and other hazards
- Trauma from collisions
- Carbon-monoxide poisoning from malfunctioning boat motors
- Operators failing to account for the added impact that the noise, sun exposure, vibration, glare and wind have on their bodies, particularly if they are intoxicated or taking certain prescription medications
An Obvious Leading Cause of Water Injuries and Deaths
Just like on dry land, one of the leading causes of accidents involving boats and personal watercraft is the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol impairs the ability of operators and passengers alike to react to the constantly changing tides and winds that can easily put a boat off balance. Combined with improper operation or the lack of a life jacket, intoxication can easily lead to a drowning or collision.
Alcohol is not, in and of itself, illegal on the water. Everyone of legal drinking age — both passengers and operators — on a boat or personal watercraft is technically allowed to imbibe. What is against the law, however, is for a boat’s “captain” to be under the influence of alcohol, illicit substances or prescription medications.
Boating under the influence (BUI) is illegal in all state as well as federal waterways. BUI laws are more inclusive than those governing DUI, and they make it illegal to operate any type of boat or personal watercraft while intoxicated. The prohibition applies to motorized vehicles like motorboats, fishing vessels, Wave Runners and Jet Skis, and commercial ships, as well as nonmotorized ones such as paddleboats, canoes and rowboats.
Being Proactive Can Save Lives
Although the potential for harm in a boating accident will always exist, taking some relatively simple precautions can greatly increase your chances of having a safe and enjoyable experience on the water. When you are planning a boating excursion, remember a few rules:
- Do not drink to excess, take any street drugs or use prescription medications that can induce drowsiness when operating a vessel; consider appointing a designated sober operator.
- Be aware of your surroundings, especially in areas of high traffic and on holidays.
- Have a working knowledge of local, state and federal boating regulations.
- Wear a life jacket — this is particularly important for all children, and for adults who cannot swim.
- Maintain a safe speed, one that accounts for weather conditions, swimmers and other boats.
Should you or a loved one, despite your best efforts, be injured in a boat-related accident, seek the advice of a skilled personal injury attorney in your area. This is an important step toward protecting your rights.