Despite more than double the number of on-the-water fatalities in 2010 than in 2009, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources says now is not the time for boating speed limits or mandatory boater education on state lakes.
Instead, the department is focusing on adding 10 officers to start patrolling busy waterways next summer, a step agency spokesman Brett Witt said appears a more effective way to reduce recklessness.
"We think it's a good idea for speed limits and boater education," Witt said. "At this time we're not looking to move forward with it. That doesn't mean there won't come a time when we will."
Another call for boating safety education in South Carolina came from Phil and Dixie Goshen of Steele Creek. Their son Blake died in a boating accident June 26 near Tega Cay. The family planned to start a foundation to raise money for boating safety programs, with education courses something that would have helped in the incident with their son, Dixie said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
"Recreational boats should have the same precautions cars do," Phil Goshen said.
According to recent state statistics, there were 25 reported boating fatalities this year in South Carolina. In 2009, there were 12. Of those fatalities, only four came during the 100-day summer emphasis on boating safety, traditionally thought to be the most dangerous time for boaters.
"That's a little odd," Witt said.
In the middle part of the state, momentum to slow down boaters and require training in navigation to operate a vessel developed after four deaths in a pair of boat collisions May 1 on Lake Murray.
It ebbed as boating groups split over the ideas. The decision dismayed some Midlands boaters and safety advocates. Setting speed limits on lakes, particularly at night, would slow down traffic, longtime boater George King of Columbia said.
"Its existence would make people more aware of how fast they are going," he said. "People would respect it, even if it isn't heavily enforced."
Leaders of some lakefront groups say it would be difficult to implement. Legal proceedings also would take officers off the water.
"It's more important to have enough officers out," said Joy Downs of Ballentine, executive director of the Lake Murray Association. "If you don't have enough officers on the lake, you're wasting your time adding more laws."
Boating education requirements are not new to Lake Wylie. In December 2005, state Rep. Ralph Norman called for mandatory boater education statewide, working with the Department of Natural Resources and other local law enforcement officers on what they called a "terrible task" of getting all parties on board.
"Education is key," Norman said. "Anything that saves lives through education, I'm going to support."
N.C.'s new law
Years of lobbying by local boating experts in North Carolina resulted in a new boater education law that took effect in May. Anyone age 25 or younger operating a vessel of at least 10 horsepower on North Carolina waters must complete a certified safe boating course.
However, experts say, the law hasn't had the effect they hoped it would.
"Quite honestly, where I was hoping to see an increase in the number of students and interested parties, it really never happened," said Charles "Bo" Ibach, former member of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission and 2011 commander of the Charlotte Power Squadron.
Ibach and others, such as Capt. Scott Spivey of Lighthouse Marine Service, lobbied for a law that originally included phasing in all ages and a $100 fine.
"It absolutely excluded the people who have the most accidents," Ibach said, arguing older boaters need education classes more than younger ones. "It excluded the people who needed it most. The people can afford a boat, the people who are old enough to be on the water."
Ibach says boaters affected by the North Carolina law likely took courses online because his classroom numbers didn't increase before, or after, the new law took effect. He hoped for 30 to 40 students in each class, but in three classes held this year, there were only 20 students total.
"It's still out there, and people still need to get certified," Ibach said. "There are things out there on the lake that people - I don't care what their age - if they haven't taken a course for a while, they don't know."
Norman said there is still a need for improved safety on the water. Yet he and other legislators are not interested in passing laws with no meaningful way of enforcing them, he said.
"What's really affecting this is the cutbacks in funding that the Department of Natural Resources and just about all law enforcement agencies are seeing," Norman said. "It's an issue of having the manpower to do it, and they just don't have it."
Norman said issues such as finding the reason for the high number of fatalities while recreational boat sales are down 60 percent need to be addressed.
"You'd think if there aren't as many people buying boats then there wouldn't be as many (fatalities), but we're seeing just the opposite," he said.
There are about 135 officers statewide, a drop of nearly 40 percent, as declining state revenues forced layoffs, retirements and a hiring freeze. The financial squeeze limits patrols outside of holidays and weekends, when boating is most congested.
Tim Flach of The State contributed to this story.