This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council. The efforts of its members over the years have contributed to a reduction in fatalities not only locally, but also across the state.
The Water Safety Council began as a group of concerned citizens working to promote safety back in 1990. According to some early reports, the goal of the council was to “identify, collect, research, discuss and reach agreement on measures that will enhance boating safety at the lake.”
While the number of boaters on Smith Mountain Lake was fairly small compared to today, popularity began surging over the next decade. With the increase in boaters came a growing number of serious boating accidents involving speed, alcohol, inattentiveness and rules of the road navigation violations.
According to a report from the Water Safety Council from 2005, there were seven fatalities at Smith Mountain Lake between 2000 and 2005. Of those, six were the result of vessel-to-vessel collisions.
The number of boat-to-boat collisions was more than twice the number reported at any other waterway in Virginia at the time between 2000 and 2005. There were 45 collisions involving 90 boaters. Of those boaters involved, 76% did not have any level of boating education.
There were also 110 reported boating accidents on the lake involving a vessel towing skiers, wakeboaders or inflatables.
Longtime Water Safety Council member Pete Lewis said the growing concern over boat safety came to a head that year in 2005. That year a lake couple traveling by boat on the lake were killed when a speeding motorboat struck the couple’s boat from behind.
Lewis said members at the time discussed several options to improve safety at the lake. The overall consensus was mandatory boater education, Lewis said.
The Water Safety Council traveled to Richmond in 2006 to push for boater education. Lewis joined lake resident and eventual Water Safety Council member Bruce Dungan in talking to members of the General Assembly. They were eventually joined by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, who also helped in pushing for the law.
“Pete and I spent a little over three weeks walking the halls” Dungan said of those early efforts. “You’ve got to remember this was all volunteer work.”
Back home, members of the Water Safety Council got the support of other lake groups in pushing for boater education legislation. They asked groups to call their state representatives.
“It worked,” Dungan said of the effort.
Virginia’s boating safety and education compliance requirement was passed into law by the General Assembly in 2007. Over nine years the law was phased in gradually by age group until it was mandatory for everyone in 2016.
Dungan said the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries was providing boater education classes for around 1,200 people a year when it was voluntary before the law passed. As the law was phased in between 2006 and 2016 more than 260,000 people attended a boater education class.
“It’s working pretty well,” Dungan said of the mandatory boater education.
The numbers of reported injuries, fatalities and boating incidents has trended downward since the boater education law was phased in, according to annual boating incident reports from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The efforts of the Water Safety Council did not end with the passage of mandatory boater education laws. The group is continuing efforts to make Smith Mountain Lake safer. In recent years the council has focused on efforts to increase the use of life jackets on boats or on docks.
Boaters are not required to wear life jackets while boating, but it has been strongly encouraged by the Water Safety Council. In recent years the council has developed pamphlets that are provided at local marinas, created signs that residents can place on docks and rented billboards all encouraging the use of life jackets.
“The Water Safety Council has carried on the effort to keep the lake safe but enjoyable,” Dungan said.