Texas leads nation in boating fatalities

July 4, 2008 4:24:17 PM PDT
Roland Paredez said that when he's out in his boat, everyone -- even the black Labrador puppy -- wears a life jacket. His safety-minded outlook is one officials wish more Texans would adopt. Over the Fourth of July weekend, game wardens are stepping up patrols on lakes across the state, looking out for unsafe and illegal behavior on the water.

Nationwide, boating fatalities decreased last year everywhere but Texas, where 52 people died in boating-related accidents, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It was the highest number of boating fatalities since 2002.

So far this year there have been 23 boating fatalities in Texas, seven fewer than the same time last year. But Maj. Alfonso Campos, the state agency's chief of marine enforcement, said it's too early to make any favorable comparisons or predict whether the drop is a trend that will continue.

Just back from a spin in Joe Pool Lake with his sons, 9-year-old Ruben and 24-year-old Roland II, the senior Paredez of Mesquite said that he thinks education is the key to turning the tide.

"People need to take a boating safety course for sure," said Roland Paredez, 44, adding that he's encountered too many careless people passing too close or simply not paying attention.

With the boost in patrols over the weekend, game wardens will be busy. Texas has about 4,900 square miles of inland water -- more than any of the 48 continental states, followed by Minnesota, Florida and Louisiana.

Campos noted that Texas' size and population could be one of the factors contributing to the number of fatalities, but authorities still report a jump in fatal accidents during big summer holidays, when more people are apt to be out partying.

In addition to wearing a life jacket and closely monitoring friends and family members in the water, authorities suggest that boaters have a "designated driver," someone who won't be drinking when alcohol is consumed on the watercraft.

Parks and Wildlife officials note that alcohol is involved in one-third of all boating fatalities. A person arrested for boating while intoxicated may be jailed up to 180 days and/or fined as much as $2,000.

Although only children 12 and under are required to wear life jackets, Campos said that a lot of fatalities could be prevented by wearing a life jacket.

"Ninety percent of the fatality victims we recover are not wearing a life jacket," he said.

Jane Prichard said precautions she takes while boating include not allowing drinking and requiring children to don life vests, but she is among those who don't think it's necessary for adults to always wear a life jacket while on the water.

On Thursday, she failed to heed her granddaughter's shouts to put one on when she jumped from the family boat into Joe Pool Lake to float on their inner tube.

"I swim better without it," Prichard, 52, of Fort Worth, said later as she and her husband brought their boat ashore.

Historically, Lake Lewisville is one of the three most dangerous bodies of water in the state for fatalities while Possum Kingdom has the second most injuries, state officials say.

Fishing with a buddy on Joe Pool Lake on Thursday, retired police officer Mike Robison of Grand Prairie said strong enforcement is needed.

"A lot of people just don't obey the rules," said Robison, 54. "A little common sense goes a long way."

Jay Pham, who rents personal watercrafts for $60 an hour at Joe Pool Marina in Cedar Hill State Park said people can easily get hurt if they don't know how to handle the small vessels that can dart across the water's surface at 50 mph.

Consequently, Pham is picky about who he rents to.

"If they talk weird or smell of alcohol, they'll never get the key or touch my skis," he said.

Tom Loveday, who manages the marina, was busy setting out additional "No Wake" buoys Thursday in advance of the three-day weekend. After 20 years in the marina business in Texas and Florida, Loveday said there's not much he hasn't seen.

"On holidays, all the idiots come out," Loveday said, explaining that too many are clueless about water safety.

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