Boating fatalities plummet

By SCHUYLER KROPF Of The Post and Courier staff

Boating fatalities in South Carolina dropped to an all-time low last year, and state marine officials credit the decline to their crackdown on alcohol. Fifteen people died in boat accidents across the state last year - half as many as the number who died in 1997. Charleston County, which has the longest coastline in the state, had only one death, while Berkeley County, home to lakes Marion and Moultrie, also had only one fatality. None were recorded in Dorchester County, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Having two fatal accidents in an area with such a high concentration of boats is considered fortunate, Natural Resources officials say.

They credit the 1999 passage of "Drew's Law" - named for 11-year-old Drew Smith, who was killed in 1997. The law increased penalties for boating under the influence by making them parallel to the penalties for driving road vehicles under the influence. "Fewer people are drinking and operating a boat, and that has decreased the number of serious accidents and fatalities," said Capt. Glen Ward of the Natural Resources boat safety office. A conviction for boating while intoxicated now draws a sentence of up to 25 years in jail, replacing the maximum of 10 years, for any case involving death. The law also gives Natural Resources the authority to test blood-alcohol level before a boater goes out and stipulates that boaters can also be convicted of reckless driving, which carries a fine of up to $200 or 30 days.

Natural Resources can also now suspend boating privileges. Neither of the local boating deaths was attributed to alcohol; rough water and bad weather were listed as contributing factors. In the Charleston County case, 46-year-old Robert Patrick of Greenpark Avenue was thrown from his boat into the Ashley River last May after he lost control, said Natural Resources spokesman Mike Willis. In the Berkeley County case, strong winds and turbulent waters threw two men into Lake Moultrie last April. Robert Ira Gaskins Jr., 19, of Timmonsville died in the cold temperatures. Natural Resources also had better enforcement last year because 27 officers were added to its patrol force. South Carolina has more than 460,000 acres of lakes, 8,000 miles of rivers and 3,000 miles of coastline and waterways. With 400,000 registered watercraft, S.C. ranks eighth nationally in number of boats licensed and registered.

BOATING DEATHS Boating Deaths in South Carolina waters:

2000 - 15
1999 - 18
1998 - 28
1997 - 34
1996 - 20

S.C. Dept. of Natural Resources