TPWD reminds Texans of water safety guidelines

Reporter Staff
In the past week, the Somervell County Sheriff's Office and Fire Department have performed two water rescues in the county. The agencies are urging residents to be careful and watch for rising water in low lying areas while traveling and playing.

AUSTIN – Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recently marked National Safe Boating Week, May 22-28, and reminds Texans to be safe and vigilant this summer by following the law and taking basic safety precautions while on the water.

The guidance comes at a critical moment: in 2020, boating accidents were at a 30-year all-time high. Fatalities on Texas waterways increased 45% in 2020 from 2019, while fatal accidents on the water rose by 61%.

Overall, accidents on the water were up 67%, and injuries were up by 64%. More than 70% of boating accidents that occurred in 2020 were on open motorboats or personal watercraft. The months of May through August traditionally have the highest numbers of injuries and fatalities statewide, with weekends seeing the peak figures.

This year alone — from January through April 2021 — Texas experienced a 40% increase in open water-oriented fatalities, including boating and swimming incidents, compared to the same period in 2020. Overall, in 2020, 55 boating fatalities and multiple boat accidents and injuries occurred on Texas waters.

“Texas Game Wardens were out in full force Memorial Day weekend to ensure the public enjoys their time on the water responsibly, however, we need boaters to ensure they are taking safety seriously, too,” said Cody Jones, assistant commander for Marine Enforcement at TPWD. “Most of the deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Texas waters last year were preventable by following a few simple, important steps – including using the safety ignition cut-off switch (ECOS) and wearing life jackets.”

“Summer has arrived for many and with it comes the need to remember to wear their life vest,” said Kimberly Sorensen, TPWD Boating Education manager. “According to Texas state law, a life jacket must be available for each occupant of a boat or paddle craft. Children who are under the age of 13 are required to wear a life vest while on the boat or when the paddle craft is underway or drifting.”

In 2020, Texas game wardens issued 641 citations for children not wearing a life jacket, up 11% from the previous year. 1,821 citations were issued for insufficient life jackets onboard, up 26% from 2019.

“Drowning is the highest reported cause of death in boating fatalities,” said Sorensen.  “Most victims are found not wearing a lifejacket. Simply stowing your life jacket on the boat is inadequate. Accidents on the water can happen quickly leaving insufficient time to put on a life jacket when most needed. For everyone’s safety, wear your life jacket and ensure others wear theirs at all times when on the water.”

Law enforcement will also be on the lookout for those violating boating under the influence laws. Operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol is an offense that can lead to fines, the loss of a driver’s license and an increased risk of accidents or fatalities on the water.

Boater education is key to helping reduce accidents and fatalities. Of the fatalities and accidents in 2020, more than 60% of boat operators had not completed the state-mandated boater safety course. In order to operate a personal watercraft or a boat with a 15-horsepower rating or more, anyone born on or after Sept. 1, 1993, must complete a boater education course. Boaters can find a selection of online boater courses that can be taken anytime on TPWD’s boater education web page at tpwd.texas.gov/education/boater-education/. In-person courses are available. Paddlers can also access a free paddling safety course online.

Other important safety precautions include checking the weather before heading to the water, learning to swim, checking your equipment, ensuring sufficient backup and waterproof communication devices, wearing life vest, using the safety engine cut-off switch (ECOS) and knowing the rules of the waterway before launching on the lake. The public is encouraged to check with managing authority of the waterbody they intend to visit for any local ordinances in place. All boating laws are still in effect.

For more information about boating safety, laws and requirements, visit TPWD’s boating laws website at tpwd.texas.gov/fishboat/boat/laws/. Check out the Life Jacket Association website at http://www.lifejacketassociation.org/ for a guide to proper cleaning and storing of their Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs).