The Memorial Day holiday - the unofficial start of the summer vacation season and the first time many boaters take to the water after the winter hiatus - is an opportune time to remind area residents of something they should already know. The region's attractive and popular waterways can be perilous places. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, in fact, reports that the two most dangerous waterways in the state are the Ocoee River and Chickamauga Lake.
The danger is growing because more and more individuals are on the water in an expanding number of watercraft of various sizes at sometimes dizzying rates of speed. The result is unsurprising: Deaths, injuries and drownings on state rivers, lakes and bays are becoming a regular component of boating season.
In Tennessee, there were 19 boating deaths and 131 serious injuries reported last year by the Boating Division of the TWRA, which is responsible for waterway safety. Ensuring and enforcing safety is a difficult job in a state with expansive waterways, but the TWRA works hard to fulfill its mission.
The agency does get some assistance from other enforcement agencies. In Hamilton County, for example, the sheriff's boat patrol works with the TWRA, providing safety patrols in addition to security for special events on the county's waterways. The county also provides aid in emergencies in nearby counties that do not have boat patrols.
Even with such help, ensuring safety on Tennessee's myriad waterways is a never-ending task. In 2010, TWRA officers arrested 155 people for boating under the influence, inspected 83,600 vessels and issued 2,558 violation citations and 1,683 warning citations. They also participated in about 50 search-and-rescue missions.
The numbers of deaths, reportable accidents, injuries and violations are high, but there is hope they might level off or decline soon, despite an increase in the number of watercraft. A few years ago, Tennessee approved a law requiring all those born after Jan. 1, 1989, to pass a nationally approved boater education class before they could legally operate watercraft in the state. Several thousand people completed the course and passed the test last year. That education/testing program makes sense, but it is not a cure-all.
There is no guarantee that the classes will produce more competent watercraft operators. After all, those who drive cars and trucks have had to pass similar tests for decades, but that hasn't completely ended roadway mayhem.
Still, it's obvious that safety education and instruction have helped reduce deaths and accidents on the state's waterways. The long-term effect of Tennessee's boating education requirement is slowly becoming known. As more and more individuals born after Jan. 1, 1989 pass the required course that stresses safe boating practices, use of proper equipment and the handling of boats in adverse conditions, the state should build an expanding core of knowledgeable operators. That, in turn, should create a safer environment for those who ply the state's waters.
Law enforcement and educational courses together can help make waterways safe for those who flock to them. TWRA patrols, abetted by other agencies in some instances, serve a vital purpose. So do programs that stress the need to follow safety procedures.
In Tennessee and elsewhere, drunken boaters and high-speed accidents always seem to get the lion's share of attention. There's nothing wrong with that, but equal notice should be given to other incidents and accidents that lead to drownings and injuries, too. That's especially true in a region where whitewater accidents on the Ocoee and collisions on Chickamauga Lake are a continuing problem.
The TWRA lists three priorities for safe boating: wear a life jacket; don't drink alcohol and operate a boat; and know and follow navigation rules. Memorial Day is a perfect time to make those rules a matter of routine. Doing so should help make Tennessee's rivers and lakes safer for all who use them.