COLUMBIA -- Recreational boating deaths on South Carolina's waterways are the lowest they've been in 15 years, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The calendar year ended with 120 accidents -- 18 of which were fatal.
That's 46 fewer accidents than the year before and 10 fewer deaths, according to statistics just released.
"We're still a long way from where we'd like to be, but these latest statistics offer some encouragement," said Capt. Glenn Ward, who heads the DNR's Marine Boating and Safety Education section.
He credits the decline to a more safety-conscious public. But stiffer laws and penalties have forced people to be more careful.
In Georgia, the news wasn't so good. Officials there are coming off their worst year in a decade for boating accidents and casualties.
Last year, there were 212 recorded accidents and 17 deaths. That is 38 more accidents than the year before and one more death.
In recent years, the South Carolina DNR has pumped more money into its budget to promote boating safety. Exactly how much is difficult to determine, however, because small amounts come from different pots of money.
"Awareness and boater education are key to continuing to improve South Carolina's boating safety statistics in the future," Capt. Ward said.
The agency uses the extra money it receives to air radio and television promotions and lease billboards. It also releases a regular series of news releases at strategic times throughout the year. And the department's officers are more visible on the waterways, forcing boaters to be more careful.
That might be why the number of recorded boating accidents is lower than in years past, Capt. Ward said.
This spring the number of officers on the waterways will increase by 27. Some of them will be stationed on Lake Thurmond.
The General Assembly also has gotten tougher, but not on its own -- citizens groups have kept after legislators.
A bill signed into law in July brings the rules of the state's waterways in line with the roadways, including stiff penalties for drunken boating.
Drew's Law, also called the Boating Reform and Safety Act, made that possible.
But it took the death of a child -- and residents outraged about it -- to change the rules.
Before the law was changed, the maximum penalty for a boating reckless homicide was five years in prison, compared to 10 years for reckless homicide in a car.
A person convicted of driving under the influence in which another person was killed faces up to 25 years in prison. Had that same intoxicated person killed someone in a boat, the maximum sentence was 10 years.
But not anymore. The new law corrects deficiencies that have let bad boaters escape with light penalties.
It's named for Joseph Drew Smith, an 11-year-old Lexington boy who was killed July 19, 1997, when two boats collided on Lake Murray. He was fishing a night bass tournament with his father, Randall, when the accident occurred. The driver of one vessel was drunk, and Drew's death prompted the legislation.
Under the law, DNR officers now can administer a breath-alcohol test to suspected drunken boaters.
Before Drew's Law, police could request testing of boat operators only when there was a reportable accident or casualty.
In Georgia, the maximum penalty for operating a boat under the influence is a $1,000 fine, loss of boat operation privileges and 12 months in jail.
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.