JUNE 16, 2022: Navigable waterways have played a pivotal role throughout Tennessee’s history and continue to impact the current landscape. From early settlements, where waterways were used to transport commercial goods, to hosting key battles of the Civil War along the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers. Followed by the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority which expanded impounded waters in 1933. The expansion provided jobs and electricity for those living in this rural area. The construction of dams later furnished the infrastructure for the development of the atomic bomb during World War II in the secret city of Oak Ridge. Today, there are nearly 700,000 acres of impounded waters on 38 reservoirs and 19,000 streams utilized by recreational and commercial vessels. From the founding of our nation to present day, the waterways of Tennessee are an ever-present force, and those that work to promote its functioning and safety are essential actors.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) is the sole state agency charged with administering the Tennessee Boating Safety Act of 1965. While boating enforcement has always been a critical function of the TWRA, several state actions further prioritized the importance of enforcement. The passage of the Boating Under the Influence (BUI) bill by the state legislature created rigorous enforcement demands for impaired boating. In 1989, Chief Ed Carter worked to create a Boating Division within the TWRA, forming a multi-faceted effort to address impaired vessel operation. These efforts continue in full force today, in the hope that no more lives will be lost to BUI.
Tennessee has over 252,000 active boat registrations, with five of its largest cities being located on navigable rivers. Boating enforcement and education occurs year-round through the efforts of 171 full-time Wildlife/Boating officers. The TWRA, through its NASBLA accreditation, utilizes a cadre of BUI instructors. These instructors are veterans specifically trained in BUI detection. Each year, these instructors work with TWRA wildlife officer cadets to provide 24 hours of BUI detection and enforcement training, along with regional BUI refresher training, throughout the state. Because impairment can be caused by more than alcohol, dozens of officers have also attended the Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement courses to learn about other potential boating operation risks.
“For much of my career, TWRA has been invested in the training and confidence of its wildlife officers by providing top quality BUI detection and apprehension courses to everyone in uniform,” said Captain Matt Majors, TWRA Boating Investigator. “We are truly at a fork in the road where BUI is starting to get the recognition that it has so desperately deserved. Overshadowed in the past by DUI… recreational boaters, legislators, and law enforcement are now all in agreement that BUI is DUI and operators should be held accountable.”
TWRA has been involved with NASBLA’s Operation Dry Water (ODW) campaign since its inception in 2009. As part of the campaign, TWRA has produced public safety announcements and conducted vigilant enforcement. Over the course of the 2021 heightened awareness and enforcement weekend, 264 TWRA officers removed 21 impaired boat operators from our nation’s waterways for alcohol and/or drug impairment. District 21 Boating Officer Josh Landrum was recently recognized for his outstanding contributions to BUI enforcement during the 2021 ODW weekend as Officer of the Year.
In addition to these enforcement efforts, TWRA continues to explore ideas on how to educate the public on the dangers of boating while impaired. Through the collaborative efforts of the Multimedia Division, Communications Division and Boating Outreach Coordinator, professional quality public service announcements (PSAs) and infographics are developed and distributed through various media outlets year-round. The information is also discussed in Tennessee’s mandatory boating education course required for those born after January 1, 1989.
Understanding that impaired boaters often become impaired drivers, the TWRA collaborates with other stakeholders in increasing BUI awareness on Tennessee waters. A member of the TWRA Law Enforcement command staff sits on the Tennessee Chapter of MADD’s Advisory Board and the Tennessee Highway Safety Office’s Impaired Driving Advisory Council. This has led to an increase in multiagency DUI/BUI enforcement details and sends a unified message to the public.
During the 2022 legislative sessions, the Tennessee Chapter of MADD supported a bill that aligned the BUI penalty with the Driving Under the Influence (DUI) penalty and clarified that vehicular assault and vehicular homicide may be committed by those boating under the influence. The bill, which includes a minimum of 48 hours in jail, passed in the legislature without opposition. This year, the TWRA has been invited to speak at both the Tennessee District Attorneys Conference and General Sessions Judges Conference on its efforts to remove impaired boaters from Tennessee waterways.
As the population in Tennessee continues to grow and tourism booms, efforts to detect and remove impaired boat operators continues to be a guiding goal for TWRA. Through efforts to educate the public, to promote quality training in detection, to be proactive in enforcement, and to collaboratively work with stakeholders, Tennessee will continue to keep its waterways a useful and safe part of its history for the boating public.