The Memorial Day holiday is an apt timer to offer a propitious and potentially life-saving warning: The area's attractive waterways are often dangerous places.
Understandably popular, the rivers, lakes, creeks and bays that lace the countryside are increasingly filled with men, women and youngsters who pilot a burgeoning number of watercraft with various levels of expertise and speed. The water is rapidly becoming what roadways have been for years -- a place far too commonly associated with death and serious injuries.
In Tennessee last year, there were 24 boating fatalities (five more than in 2010) and 105 serious injuries, according to the Boating Division of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, responsible for policing the state's waterways. That's a daunting task for the agency's 230 full and part-time employees, though they do have some help in fulfilling the mission.
Many counties and communities across the state work closely with the TWRA. Some provide boat patrols to promote safety and provide security. The marine division of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, for example, patrols county waters and often assists the state agency during emergencies in nearby counties.
Even with such help, patrolling Tennessee's waterways and safeguarding those who use them is a gargantuan task. Last year, TWRA officers arrested 116 people for boating under the influence. They inspected 76,226 vessels and issued 1,783 court citations for violations and 986 warning citations. Officers also participated in numerous search-and-rescue missions.
The numbers of deaths, accidents, injuries and violations are high, but not as high as they might have been had the state not acted to improve safety on the water. State legislation now requires all those born after Jan. 1, 1989, to pass a nationally approved boater education class before they can legally operate watercraft. It's a reasonable requirement, and almost 6,000 Tennesseans successfully completed the exam in 2011.
Taking a required class in boater education does not guarantee that safe operation of a watercraft. Those who drive cars and trucks have had to take such courses and/or tests for decades, but there is still mayhem on the nation's roads. Even so, education and fair and effective law enforcement are key components in making state waters safe for all. TWRA's patrols, with some help from other agencies, serve that purpose. So do programs stressing boating and fishing safety.
In Tennessee, drunken boaters and collisions typically catch the public's attention, but many fatalities on the water are due to drowning. It's just as important to wear a life jacket as it is to obey rules about drinking and boating. Safety precautions and good sense are always wise companions on the water. The Memorial Day holiday is a good time to adopt both.