JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. — It's the time of year when people are hitting the waterways for a day on the lake. Anyone heading out should make sure to bring sunscreen, towels, something to snack on and plenty of water. But, if you're planning on driving the boat, it's best to leave the beer at home.
Using alcohol or drugs was the primary cause of around 4% of boating incidents in 2022. That's an increase from 3% in 2021. But, officers with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are working to get that number to zero.
Officer Justin Pinkston is doing just that on Douglas Lake. During this boating season, which just started, he has already made four out of five arrests on Douglas Lake. Boating under the influence (BUI) is the number one offense he is on the lookout for.
"We're making sure especially that they're sober drivers. Because if you're intoxicated or impaired, you will be arrested and taken off the water," Pinkston said.
Pinkston has been doing this job for four years, and said he can tell from a distance when someone is intoxicated and operating a boat. In 2022 a law took effect which matched BUI criminalization to that of a DUI.
"It's more in line with DUI now because BUI is a DUI — you're out here drunk in a motorized vessel. If you're impaired, it's the same thing as driving a car," Pinkston said. "We're not giving people warnings for that if you're impaired — you're going to jail. So now that the laws have gotten tougher, it really helps us and it should scare people into having a sober operator so they can get home safe."
In 2022, across the state of Tennessee, 102 people were arrested for boating under the influence.
Some crashes don't involve alcohol. There were 134 reportable boating incidents in 2022, which was a decrease from 145 in 2021. The main cause of an incident is a boating collision.
TWRA said those boating incidents caused $2,594,000 worth of damages.
"We are the sole agency who's in charge of investigating those. So, when a boat accident happens, we have lots of sirens to get here to try to preserve life, limb and property. But, it is tough," Pinkston said.
In 2022, he said 29 people died while spending time on the water. That's an increase from 22 deaths in 2021. Additionally, in 2022, 42 people faced severe injuries. So far in 2023, there have been 12 boating fatalities.
Pinkston said wearing a life jacket can make your time on the water much safer.
"It's very hard to drown with a life-jacket on. I just advise everyone to wear their life jackets," Pinkston said.
In 2022, TWRA issued 1,294 boating citations and 508 warning citations. That was during a span of 127,857 boating law enforcement hours.