Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kickoff of summer and boating season. Public safety officials are reminding boaters, kayakers, and other lakegoers to be cautious when on the water, wear a personal floatation device, and not drink alcohol, especially while driving a boat or other watercraft. Courtesy photo by Tavis Wilson
Boaters planning to hit the Highland Lakes over Memorial Day weekend won’t be alone.
“Texas game wardens will be out in full force this weekend to ensure the public enjoys their time on the water responsibly, but we need boaters to make sure they are taking safety precautions seriously, too,” said Cody Jones, assistant commander of Marine Enforcement for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Most of the tragic deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Texas waters last year could have been prevented by following a few simple and important steps: wearing a life jacket and using a safety ignition kill switch.”
According to the TPWD, 36 people died in boating-related accidents on Texas waters in 2019.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down other activities, it appears to have had the opposite effect on boating and lake use. Jones said the department has seen a “stark increase” in boating and water recreation during the spring, and some of it has led to tragedy.
“During March and April of 2020, Texas has experienced a roughly 45 percent increase in open water-oriented fatalities, including boating and swimming incidents over the same period in 2019,” he said. “Summer has arrived early for many, and with it comes the need for people to remember to wear their life vest.”
He added that drowning remains the highest reported cause of death in boating fatalities, “and most victims are found not wearing a life jacket.” Under Texas law, there must be a life jacket available to everyone aboard a boat or paddle craft. The law also requires children under the age of 13 to wear one while the craft is underway or drifting.
Another safety measure the TPWD stresses is the use of ignition kill switches. Under Kali’s Law, which went into effect last year, operators of watercraft under 26 feet in length must use a kill switch when going faster than headway speed. But, Jones pointed out, the switch is only effective if the operator clips it on.
Jones pointed out that many of the fatalities from last year could have been prevented had the driver used a kill switch.
“Some accidents are unavoidable, but if a boat operator is thrown from the helm or ejected, there is only one way to shut off the engine and stop the boat from hitting someone: a safety ignition kill switch,” he said. “It only takes a second to clip the safety ignition onto your belt loop or life jacket, and it could save your life and the lives of everyone on board.”
Game wardens and other law enforcement officers, including Lower Colorado River Authority rangers, also will be looking out for those boating while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A BUI charge can lead to fines as well as the loss of the violator’s driver’s license.
Officials also encourage those using kayaks, canoes, and standup paddleboards to practice safety measures, including being alert to what’s going on around them, especially in areas of high boat traffic.
Kayaks and canoes sit low in the water and can be difficult for people in larger craft to see. A free paddle sports safety course can be found online.
Boater education benefits everyone. Youths born on or after September 1, 1993, must complete a boater education course before they can operate a personal watercraft or boat with a 15-horsepower rating or more. Find a course with help from the TPWD website.
LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma urged lakegoers to pay attention to where everyone in their party is at all times, especially when swimming. It’s easy for someone to slip below the water undetected. Officials recommend someone in the party always monitor the others, and parents should pay close attention to children. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death among children, according to the TPWD.