After fatal boat wrecks a month apart, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office is launching a boater-safety campaign, distributing brochures to marinas and installing signs warning boaters to drive safely.
One of the Jefferson Parish accidents was among 27 Louisiana boating deaths through June – already surpassing the total of 21 for all 2010, said Adam Einck, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
There have been several in July, including at least one Saturday or early Sunday in the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge.
“People don’t realize that when you’re driving a boat, it’s just like driving a car, except you don’t have brakes or street signs or traffic lights. You’ve got to make your own caution,” said Glenn Sanchez, owner of the Breton Sound Marina in Hopedale.
According to a Wildlife and Fisheries report last year, operator inattention is the leading cause of boating accidents, causing 23 percent of collisions. Excessive speed comes in second, drunken driving is third.
“People have one thing on their mind: they want to go fishing,” Sanchez said. “They have tunnel vision. But they need to slow down and smell the roses.”
A New Orleans-area crash in July killed 12-year-old Samantha Vinturella of Mandeville. One on June 16 killed Donald Neal Sr., 66, and injured his passenger. Authorities said he took a sharp turn in his 18-foot aluminum boat and collided with a 25-foot fiberglass boat carrying seven people. Nobody on the larger boat was hurt.
With 302,141 recreational boats registered in the state in 2010, Louisiana ranks 10th in the nation in per-capita boat ownership.
“Louisiana has always been a state with a year-round boating season. There’s no break for boaters, and that increases the traffic in the water,” Einck said. “Anytime you add traffic, the risk of boat collisions goes up.”
All passengers younger than 16 are required to wear a life jacket in Louisiana, but authorities urge everyone to have one handy. Drowning is the leading cause of boating deaths. Of the 17 people who drowned in Louisiana in 2009, 15 were not wearing life jackets, according to a Wildlife and Fisheries report.
Eddie Held makes his two 11-year-old grandsons put theirs on before they even get out of the truck. They complain that the jackets are uncomfortable and uncool, he said.
“But I just say, if you slip, fall, crack your head and fall in the water and you ain’t got on a life jacket, you’re dead,” Held said. “If you’ve got a life jacket, you’ll float.”
Through the decades, he said, the canals have gotten crowded. Boats are faster and GPS systems direct rookie drivers to places they would be otherwise scared to travel. He wishes the state required all new boat owners to take a safety course, which is mandatory only for those born after 1988.
The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries hosts free safety courses, both online and as an eight-hour classroom session. Einck said even veteran boaters are likely to learn something.
For now, Held avoids the canals altogether on the weekends, he said: “There’s just too many knuckleheads down here on Saturday.”
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