Boating safety a priority

Ohio’s waterways may be a little more crowded every year, but the number of boating accidents is decreasing, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Watercraft Division.

“As boating increases, our accident numbers continue to decrease and our boating-related fatalities over the last 10 years are down 29 percent from the previous decade,” said ODNR spokesman John Wisse.

According to ODNR statistics, there have been two fatal boating accidents in the state so far this year. In 2012 there were 11 watercraft-related fatalities.

“This is the fourth year in a row we’ve had a record number of boating registrations, but the number of accidents keep going down,” Wisse said.

He credits the state’s safe boating certification program for helping reduce the number of accidents on the state’s rivers and lakes.

“In Ohio, any person born on or after Jan. 1, 1982, has to complete a boating safety course in order to operate any boat over 10 horsepower,” Wisse said. “An average of 12,500 boating safety certificates are issued every year, and we believe the mandatory boating certification has helped make a difference in accidents and fatalities.”

There were 442,182 boats registered in Ohio last year, up from 433,110 in 2011, according to ODNR figures. And in Washington County there were 3,889 boat registrations in 2012, an increase of 215 over the previous year.

The ODNR Division of Watercraft employs 90 commissioned law enforcement officers, investigators, managers and administrative staff.

Wisse said there have been no major changes in the state’s boating laws this year, but he noted officers from the watercraft division who are charged with enforcement of those laws are focusing on core boating safety issues.

“Everyone aboard should be wearing a lifejacket, for example,” he said. “Among the 11 boating fatalities investigated by the division last year, none were wearing safety vests. That’s pretty important.”

Another focus is on boating responsibly, Wisse said.

“That essentially means boating sober,” he said. “It’s a big concern, especially during the hot summer months of June, July and August, and on holidays like the Fourth of July. Our boating law is similar to the law for vehicles on land. Boat operators can be cited for a blood alcohol level that’s above 0.08 percent.”

Wisse added that an operator with an open alcoholic beverage container can be cited the same as the driver of a car.

“Our advice is don’t boat and drink,” he said.

While Ohio’s DNR enforces boating laws on the Muskingum River, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources has jurisdiction over boaters on the Ohio River.

“There has been one major change in the state law governing electrical connections for commercial marine facilities,” said Tim Coleman, WVDNR spokesman.

He said the law now requires electrical hookups at those facilities to be properly grounded.

There was a recent case in the state where a boy was swimming off a boat at a commercial docking area and was electrocuted because of improper grounding, Coleman said.

Another boating safety concern, although not currently regulated by state code, is carbon monoxide poisoning of people who may be swimming near an idling boat engine.

“People don’t realize that they can be swimming 50 feet from a boat set to idle, but the engine exhaust creates a lot of carbon monoxide,” Coleman said. “We’ve had people killed from breathing the vapors.”

He noted that just this spring a group of people spending the night on West Virginia’s Burnsville Lake became extremely ill because the engine was left running overnight to keep the boaters warm.

Like Ohio’s DNR, West Virginia officers also keep an eye out for anyone operating a boat while intoxicated.

So far this year West Virginia has had about nine major boating accidents statewide, Coleman said.

One of those accidents was a May 28 collision that injured eight people on the Ohio River near Ravenswood.

“It was about 3 p.m. on a Sunday, and several people were injured when their boat hit another boat,” Coleman said. “The accident is still under investigation, but there could be several factors involved.”

He said many boaters do not realize there are navigational rules that govern the movement of boats on the water, in the same way that there are rules for drivers of vehicles on land.

“Also, on land a car is steered from the front of the vehicle, but a boat’s steering is from the back side, which tends to make it more difficult to maneuver,” Coleman said.

There were five fatalities on West Virginia waters in 2012, he said, and there have been two so far this year.

“Both of those deaths this year were from the same incident in Morgan County,” Coleman said. “A boat carrying three fishermen capsized and two of them drowned.”

Statewide, West Virginia has approximately 63,000 registered boats, and Coleman said there are 117 full time West Virginia Natural Resources Police officers who patrol the state’s waters.

Local boater Fred Hanson, a member of the Marietta Boating Club board of trustees, said there’s been an increase in boats being checked for proper equipment.

“They look for the proper safety equipment like life vests that are the right size for everyone on board, including infants and toddlers,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing if the enforcement officers do the check in a professional manner.”

Hanson said one of the biggest safety issues for area boaters is watching the wake created by their vessels.

“Larger boats can generate awesome wakes, and boat operators are responsible for the wake they create,” he said. “We try to respect other people’s facilities and slow down when passing near docks. I think our members are pretty conscientious. But there are some boaters who just don’t seem to care.”

Hanson said at least once a year the 130-member club invites an ODNR representative to address the membership about boating safety.