The Independence Day holiday period is the busiest time of the year on Alabama’s waterways, and traditionally one of the most dangerous.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Marine Patrol Division reported 12 boating crashes and six deaths, including one on Smith Lake, and a second person missing, during the holiday day period.
“Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day are when you find the most people on the waterways, and the Fourth is probably the most,” said Sgt. Chad Pate, the Northern District commander for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Marine Patrol Division.
Pate said a lot of factors figure into wrecks and fatalities, but most are preventable, even under crowded conditions.
“The number one factor that can save your life is having a properly fitting life jacked that is in working condition,” Pate said. “Any child under 8 years old should have one on at all times.”
He also said all motor-powered boats should have a kill-switch that shuts off power immediately during a crash if the boat operator is a certain distance away from the controls.
“All new or newer boats are being made with the switches,” Pate said. “Even if you have an older boat that doesn’t have one, it’s your obligation under law to have it installed.”
Pate also emphasized that crashes can be prevented by staying to the right and not cutting across, just like in an automobile, until the driver is certain that boating lanes are clear.
“That’s the rule, that you stay to the right and that prevents a lot of problems. There are no lanes, but that’s what all boaters should do,” Pate said. “As far as boating at night, it’s important before you go out to test your lights to ensure they are working properly. You can’t wait until it’s almost dark and you’re far away from the boat ramp or dock.”
Whoever operates a boat must have a license issued by the state.
Few waterways have speed limits in the state, but Pate said maintaining a reasonable speed is advisable. Not only is it a courtesy to other boaters to maintain slower speeds, it can also allow time to see objects in the water, such as logs, that could cause a crash.
ALEA records data on a fiscal year basis, and the current year is proving to more deadly and costly than the previous year.
Pate shared the following figures:
October 2017 - June 12, 2018
Total Boating Accidents, 26, involving 33 vessels
Total Fatalities - 8
Total Injuries -14
Total Property Damage -$795,600
October 2018 - June 12, 2019
Total Boating Accidents, 59, involving 74 vessels
Total Fatalities - 13
Total Injuries - 19
Total Property Damage - $306,450
Independence Day Holiday period, June 30-July 7, preliminary figures:
Total Boating Accidents -12 crashes
Total Fatalities: deaths - 6