Boating safety was the main focus of a Lake Lanier Legislative Caucus meeting held Monday at Cumming City Hall.
The 12 legislators on the panel heard from various organizations about possible priorities for the upcoming session, specifically those dealing with safety classes, life vest requirements and boating under the influence violations.
Georgia is one of eight states where it’s legal to operate a boat with a blood alcohol content below .10, said Col. Eddie Henderson of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Section.
He recommended to the panel that the limit be increased to .08, the same as it is for those driving a car.
DNR Capt. Thomas Barnard shared statistics for the lake, including that there have been 307 boating incidents on Lanier since 2006, accounting for 31 percent of all incidents in Georgia. Of those, 40 percent have been on rented vessels.
Also since 2006, the department has cited 1,176 people for boating under the influence statewide, including 291 on Lanier. Of those, 72 were in Forsyth County, 213 were in Hall County and six were in Dawson County.
Twenty-five of the 92 boating fatalities across the state since 2006 have occurred on Lanier, said Henderson, whose No. 1 priority is “lowering the blood alcohol threshold to be equivalent to what the DUI law is.”
“Really, we would like everything boating to [compare to] DUI. The penalty phase, the reinstatement, fees that are associated with that, so that they would all be the same,” Henderson said.
Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorney Council of Georgia, echoed Henderson’s request.
“If you’re not allowed to drive in a car, you should not be allowed to operate a boat,” he said, adding the reverse is also true.
Also on Spahos’ list were other enforcement issues, such as requiring boats to be titled. In most situations on the lake, he said, authorities “can’t even readily identify who the boat belongs to.”
Spahos added that Georgia needs to keep a combined database for boaters and drivers and charge a small fee to cover the state’s expenses.
It was also noted during the meeting that the state doesn’t require boat owners to have insurance on their vessels.
Val Perry, executive vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, added the insurance issue to his priority list, which also includes offering insurance discounts for those who take a boating education course.
In addition, Perry presented preliminary survey results from 406 members of the association.
Boating education had the highest consensus, with about 95 percent of the 372 respondents saying they wanted to see legislation pursued.
Other priorities included mandatory boater licensing, increasing no wake zones, adding boater speed limits and buoy lighting.
Perry also talked about the Lake Lanier Water Safety Alliance, which is made up of lake-related agencies and organizations focused on safety concerns.
According to Perry, the group is pushing to “focus on education and focus on awareness, provide some input to the legislative process [and] look for certification of education, but don’t do it with legislation from the state.”
While a boating under the influence measure was its top priority, next on the DNR’s wish list is to raise the age requiring life vests from 10 to 13.
“That would get us to a national standard so that anyone 12 years of age and under would be required to wear a personal floatation device,” Henderson said.
He noted Georgia was one of the first states to implement the life vest requirement, but has been slow to revise it.
Third on the DNR’s list was to “mandate boater education for everyone who operates a vessel,” Henderson said.
There would be some planning involved, but the crux of the law should include completion of a six-hour education course to obtain a certificate from the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.
In other developments at the meeting, District 23 state Rep. Mark Hamilton said he planned to introduce legislation stemming from the assault of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ranger earlier this year at a lake park in Hall County.
The measure would change state law so the rangers would be considered a regulatory enforcement officer, giving them the same opportunities in state court as in federal court.
“It’s a very straight-forward bill and also a simple bill,” Hamilton said. The caucus’ next meeting is planned for Dec. 15.