Our hearts go out to the families of New York bride-to-be Lindsey Stewart and best man Mark Lennon, who were killed on July 26 when the boat on which they were passengers slammed into a construction barge not far from Manhattan. Three others were injured. Driver Jo-Jo John was arraigned from his hospital bed on one count of first-degree vehicular manslaughter and three counts of second-degree vehicular assault. As in many boating accidents, alcohol use is suspected.
Here in South Carolina we are blessed with numerous opportunities for enjoying water activities, both coastal and inland. Unfortunately, our state’s waterways are sometimes the scene of tragic accidents, such as the one which occurred in May of 2010 when three friends left on a late-night boat trip to camp on an island in Lake Murray; two of them died in a collision with another boat. Lawsuits were filed earlier this year against the drivers of both boats. Criminal charges are pending against both drivers for being under the influence of alcohol.
On that same day in May, also on Lake Murray, two women died in another boating crash. The driver in that accident is serving 10 years in prison after his conviction in March 2012 for reckless homicide. His family paid the families of the women more than $245,000 each in a settlement reached in September 2011.
We’re well into summer now, and yet temperatures will be warm enough for great boating adventures for many more weeks. There’s still time to benefit from boning up on boating safety and making sure any boat or personal watercraft you ride on is well equipped.
To begin with, consider a course in boat safety for you and all of your family members. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that a full 86 percent of boat operators involved in fatal accidents had not received boat safety instruction. In South Carolina, boat operators under age 16 are required to complete a boating course approved by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to operate a boat or personal watercraft with a 15 horsepower motor or greater, unless accompanied by an adult age 18 years or older. Read about the options offered by the DNR here: http://www.dnr.sc.gov/education/boated.html.
Second, don’t boat while under the influence. According to the Coast Guard, the top five contributing factors to accidents are boat operator inattention and inexperience, excessive speed, improper lookout and alcohol consumption. They say that alcohol consumption “continues to be of major concern” in fatal accidents, and it was listed as the leading factor in 17 percent of deaths in the Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Statistics 2012 report.
Alcohol affects many faculties necessary for safe water play: judgment, vision, balance and coordination. In fact, the U.S. Coast Guard’s website states, “Alcohol is even more hazardous on the water than on land. The marine environment – motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind and spray – accelerates a drinker’s impairment. These stressors cause fatigue that makes a boat operator’s coordination, judgment and reaction time decline even faster when using alcohol.” And you thought you were just feeling “relaxed”! Stock up on bottled water and other chilled drinks instead.
Third, wear a life jacket. It’s so easy to do . . . and so easy not to do. “Nearly 75 percent of the 736 people who died in boating accidents in 2009 drowned, and 84 percent of those victims reportedly were not wearing a life jacket,” according to Rear Adm. Kevin Cook, the Coast Guard’s director of prevention policy. South Carolina regulations require all boats to have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved wearable type PFD (personal flotation device) for each person on board or being towed. They must be in good condition, readily available and the proper size for the intended wearer. In addition, boats 16 feet in length or longer must carry a Type IV throwable device. In South Carolina, any person under twelve years of age must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type I, II, III, or V PFD when on board a class “A” (less than 16 ft. long) boat. It really doesn’t help in an accident if the PFDs are stowed inside a storage compartment.
Other types of boat equipment are also required by regulation. Did you see any evidence of these when you last rode on your friend’s boat? Is your own boat properly equipped? A boat which has a permanently installed gas tank (or one fastened in such a way that it cannot be immediately removed) must have at least one hand-held portable fire extinguisher. Flares are required for vessels in coastal waters. All boats less than 39.4 feet must carry an efficient sound-producing device. Every vessel from 39.4 to 65.6 feet must carry a whistle and a bell. Navigation lights must be on between official sunset and sunrise.
And there are some special regulations for riders of personal watercraft. Each person on a personal watercraft must wear a US Coast Guard-approved Type I, II, III or V personal flotation device. The vehicle must be equipped with a self-circling or lanyard-type engine cutoff switch. A personal watercraft cannot be operated between sunset and sunrise and may not be operated in such a manner that it leaves the water while jumping the wake within 200 feet of another vessel.
A day at the lake or shore can be a wonderful time of adventure and togetherness. Just don’t leave your good sense back home in the garage. If you or someone you love is hurt in an unfortunate accident on South Carolina waters, contact us at the Louthian Law Firm. We will be glad to put our 80 years of experience to work for you. Our toll-free number is (803) 454-1200; locally in Columbia you may dial 803-454-1200.