Authorities, families, the recreation industry and many other Alabamans are alarmed at a dramatic rise in deaths on Alabama’s lakes and rivers and along its Gulf Coast.
As officials and researchers seek reasons for the overall trend, the incidents often involve careless, reckless or negligent behavior, and the tragedies have led to arrests and lawsuits. Alabamans and visitors should take extreme care and be aware of your responsibilities and rights on and near the water.
How much worse is this year, really?
Thanks to our warm climate, Alabamans can enjoy boating and swimming year-round, but hot days and summer vacation help. The stretch from Memorial Day to Labor Day is our prime water recreation season.
Still weeks away from Labor Day, 2019’s total deaths so far on Alabama waters is already higher than any final, end-of-year total in the past 20 years. You have to look to 1998 to find a year that has exceeding the first 7 months of 2019.
With 25 deaths so far this year at last reporting, that is very bad news even if you haven’t lost a loved one to water.
Water patrol struggling to prevent accidents
The previous high in 1998 is significant, since that was the last year before a mandatory operator’s license law was fully implemented. The same law banned anyone under 12 from operating any vessel in Alabama and put several other restrictions in place.
The Alabama Marine Patrol (AMP) has recently had trouble maintaining a presence on the water. Although it has about 45 officers, it also has 21 vacancies for position that were occupied so not long ago.
One of its Senior Troopers doubts that AMP doing its best can limit the alarming death count.
“The little things can mean a lot … when you get complacent those little things are the first thing to go,” the trooper told a Huntsville TV station. “No one does think that kinda thing’s gonna happen to you and usually when it does … it’s too late.”
Lawsuits and arrests in a deadly year
After a July 4 collision left five injured and one dead on Smith Lake, about 50 miles north of Birmingham, police made an arrest for “boating under the influence.” The body of a local elementary school speech pathologist was found only days later. Three other deaths have occurred on Smith Lake so far this year.
Also on July 4, on a lake north of Montgomery, a 26-year old man and a 17-year-old boy were killed when another boat struck theirs. Five people went to the hospital. A lawsuit filed by the parents of the 17-year-old have filed a lawsuit alleging that the driver of the other boat was reckless and neither competent nor qualified to be operating the vehicle.