ROANOKE -- Del. Royston Jester III believes it's time for the state to require licenses for boaters on Virginia's lakes.
The Lynchburg Republican, a devoted fisherman, points to Smith Mountain Lake as a prime example of what the state needs to guard against. Smith Mountain Lake, a manmade reservoir southeast of Roanoke, is nearly three times as dangerous for boaters as the Chesapeake Bay, a body of water 30 times its size.
From 1984 through 1986, the Chesapeake Bay had 18 accidents that caused death, serious injury or significant boat damage, according to a recent report in Roanoke Times & World-News. During the same period, the newspaper reported, Smith Mountain Lake had 53 accidents, and two people were killed, according to state Game Commission figures.
Jester said a solution to that problem would be to license boaters in the same manner the state licenses motorists. He plans to introduce a bill that would require boat operators to pass a test on the basic rules of navigation.
Boaters, game wardens, prosecutors and police interviewed by the newspaper offered several explanations for Smith Mountain Lake's high accident rate. Among them:
Not enough game wardens to patrol the lake effectively. The lake has the same number of wardens it did 15 years ago, when it was largely unknown and unused. The Game Commission may have eight game wardens on the water to police about 10,000 boats. On most days, no one patrols the lake. A number of boats are piloted by drunks. Yet, virtually no one is arrested for drunken boating because of the small Game Commission staff and the difficulty of identifying drunken boaters.
More boats are on the lake every year, meaning more chance of accident.
The state legislature has largely ignored boating safety, last year voting down a plan to toughen drunken boating laws.
"I'm scared to death about what goes on at that lake," said Clifford Hapgood, commonwealth's attorney for Franklin County, which has half the lake's 500-mile shoreline. "The only thing that amazes me is we don't have more dead people on that lake. There's an awful lot of people out there in awfully big boats going awfully fast. And they're awfully drunk."
Smith Mountain Lake has no full-time, on-the-water patrols, and Game Commission officials told the newspaper that their budget is too limited for such a patrol. The commission's law enforcement division has a budget of about $6 million, all of it from fees from hunting and fishing licenses and boat registrations. The Game Commission gets no state funding.
Though game wardens see beer or liquor on half the boats they stop, according to a state survey, five boaters were arrested last year on charges of driving under the influence. Last year, more than 43,500 motorists were arrested on the state's roads on the same charge.
Game wardens said it is difficult to make a case against drunken boaters. The standard field sobriety test doesn't work on the water. The boater cannot be made to walk a straight line; his eyes may be red from drinking or from the glare of the lake; his face may be red from alcohol or too much sun.
Game wardens cannot force a suspect to take a Breathalyzer test. Virginia has no implied consent law giving the courts power to suspend boating rights if a boater refuses to be tested for drunkenness. Six of the 19 boating fatalities in Virginia last year involved alcohol.