State Natural Resources officials are considering mandatory training for new boaters, one of several steps being discussed to help make boating safer in the wake of four deaths on Lake Murray last weekend.
Other steps could include speed restrictions for boats, advocated by some lake residents and under consideration by the Department of Natural Resources, which patrols waterways.
The proposals, which could require changes in state law, come as the number of Natural Resources officers who patrol lakes has dropped by 50 percent because of recent state budget cuts. Meanwhile, the state's waterways increasingly are congested.
There are 435,000 registered motorized watercraft in South Carolina today, a 14 percent increase over the past decade, officials say. Making sure boaters learn the rules of navigation is "among the things we've got to look at and see what will work best," said Col. Alvin Taylor, head of law enforcement at the state Department of Natural Resources.
The proposed safety rules are taking shape as state officials investigate the deaths of four boaters in two separate late-night collisions May 1 on Lake Murray. It was one of the deadliest days on the lake recently. No charges have been filed.
South Carolina is among 13 states lacking what the National Transportation Safety Board considers satisfactory boater education standards.
Now, training to operate water-craft is required only for those ages 15 and younger, a state standard since 1996. It is optional for everyone else. Nearly 32,000 people statewide have received the instruction since 2002, records say.
Such training could be crucial to averting boating tragedies, some say. "An educated boater is a safer boater," said Andy Hyman of Chapin, commander of the local chapter of the U.S. Power Squadron.
A boat can be "like any dangerous weapon" in the hands of an inexperienced or distracted driver, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. No one counts boats on Lake Murray. But a 2007 study estimated a peak of 1,500 boats on the lake on summer holidays and weekends, a number predicted to increase to 2,000 eventually.
The area where last weekend's collisions occurred is becoming hazardous as more boaters cruise there, safety advocates say. Hyman said a lack of familiarity with navigation rules among new boaters is becoming apparent.
"There's confusion out there. "People don't know what to do." Better education is important as state Natural Resources officers, charged with patrolling waterways, are stretched thinner, some safety advocates say.
The number of Natural Resources officers has fallen to 200, down nearly 100 in the past five years because of state budget cuts as the state's income has fallen. Hyman views an eight-hour class in basic boating as vital before anyone new to boating takes to the water.
Leaders of some lakefront groups agree. "As crowded as the lake is getting, I don't know how you can say no to it," said Eddie Richardson of Gilbert, head of the Lake Murray Southside Community Association. Richardson said he takes refresher training to keep up to date on his boating skills. Law enforcement officials promote more education, but some stop short of calling for it as a condition to drive a boat.
"People ought to be more aware of the rules, especially as it's becoming more crowded," Lexington County Sheriff James Metts said. "I don't know, at this point, if we should require it."
Another dilemma in applying any training standards is how to identify new boaters — short of the unpopular step of licensing operators. Few states do that. Natural Resources officers head out for up to eight patrols daily on Lake Murray, checking not only on boaters but policing hunting and other outdoor sports.
That patrol level is about half of what it was five years ago, Natural Resources' Taylor said, adding the number of daily patrols could be cut to four as money becomes tighter. Deputies from Midlands sheriff's departments help fill the gap, but that force is fewer than 10, with some on the water irregularly.
State officers were on duty last weekend but not in the area where the first of the two collisions occurred on Lake Murray, officials said. Declining patrols could make enforcing any new boating rules difficult. "We can take more steps to make our waterways safe," Taylor said. "But if we don't have an adequate force, our compliance won't be as good as it can be."
While safety advocates focus on training, some lakefront homeowners are more concerned about slowing down high-speed boats. Some residents, including George King of Gilbert, question why boats are allowed to go much faster than vehicles can travel in towing the watercraft to the lake.
"We can't drive like that on our roads, so why allow it?" King said in recent letters to state and county officials.
Speed limits would apply to open water, as no-wake guidelines slow down watercraft near docks and in many coves. No state waterways have such limits, but they are common in other parts of the country.
Safety advocates say it is difficult to deter speeding, as officers are visible well before radar can detect a boat's rate of travel. Hyman knows many fellow boaters feel overtaxed and overregulated, but says new safety rules are vital as dangers proliferate.
"Four innocent people killed on the lake in one evening is shameful," he said.