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Boaters urged to be safe during holiday weekend

COVINGTON — Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the start of boating season, and state and national agencies are encouraging those who plan to be on the water to take a few minutes and think about safety.

Last year there were 135 boating accidents and 16 boating-related fatalities in Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"For many people, the holiday weekend signals the perfect time to be out on the water with family and friends," said Col. Homer Bryson, chief of law enforcement for DNR. "In an effort to keep everyone safe, we encourage boat operators to stay sober and alert and know Georgia's boating laws before heading out on the water."

Tips for a safe boat trip

• Designate an operator.

• Do not drink and operate a boat.

• Wear a life jacket. Children under 10 years of age are required by law to wear a life jacket while on board a moving boat.

• Don't overload your boat with people or equipment. Check on the capacity plate for the maximum weight or the maximum number of people the boat can safely carry.

• Use navigation lights at all times when on the water at night. Check lights before it gets dark.

• Never leave a young child unattended on a vessel in the water.

• Always remove the lanyard attached to the engine cut-off switch when the vessel is docked, beached or otherwise unattended.

• Watch your speed. The 100-foot law prohibits operation at speeds greater than idle within 100 feet of any vessel, unless overtaking or meeting another vessel in compliance with the rules of the road.

• Operators of personal watercrafts: Do not jump the wake of another boat, pay attention to surroundings and stay clear of other vessels.

• Take a boating safety course at www.goboatgeorgia.com.

Boaters should remember the 100-foot law that prohibits operation at speeds greater than idle within 100 feet of any vessel, unless overtaking or meeting another vessel in compliance with the rules of the road.

About 500 people drown each year in recreational boating accidents. In 2009, drowning was the reported cause of death in almost three-fourths of all boating fatalities and 84 percent of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets.

The National Safe Boating Council says life jackets are lighter, less obtrusive and more attractive these days and new inflatable life jackets allow mobility and flexibility for activities like boating, fishing and paddling. Some inflate instantly when submerged in water and others are manually inflated.

"We want to prove that life jackets not only save lives, but that today's life jackets are comfortable, stylish and easy to wear," said John Johnson, executive director of National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. "In fact, they don't even have to be jackets anymore. The old-fashioned, bulky orange life jacket most people are used to has been replaced with innovative new options we want all boaters to know about, including the new inflatable styles."

Last year, conservation rangers made 139 boating under the influence arrests. Those who operate a boat while under the influence can face a misdemeanor punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and up to 12 months in prison. It's also a misdemeanor for endangering a child if transporting a person under age 14 while impaired.

"Operating a boat is as complicated as driving a car and a boating incident is as dangerous as an automobile accident," said Ron Fennel, chairman of TEAM Georgia, a safe and sober driving and boating coalition. Drinking impairs coordination skills, judgment and reaction time necessary to operate a boat, according to TEAM Georgia. To register as a designated sober operator and win prizes, visit www.teamgeorgia.net.

For more on boating safety, visit www.goboatgeorgia.com