Fewer people are drinking before driving their boats, something that law enforcement and people involved in boating credit to increased education and stricter laws.
“It’s no longer culturally and socially tolerated to put people at risk,” said John C. Fetterman, director of law enforcement for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. He compared the trend to the evolution of people’s thoughts regarding driving a car while intoxicated.
“It was no big deal if you were drunk and hit a tree in the ’60s,” said Fetterman, 60. “You just had to get your car fixed. Now, you go to jail.”
According to the Coast Guard, 594 boating accidents nationwide were attributed to alcohol in 2001, a number that shrank to 361 in 2011. With more than 12 million registered boats in the United States, this is a decrease from 4.6 accidents per 100,000 vessels in 2001 to 2.9 in 2011.
In New Jersey, accidents in which alcohol was a factor have fallen from almost 11 per year in the 1990s to more than four per year between 2000 and 2011.
Similarly, the average number of injuries have shrunk from more than 12 per year in the 1990s to more than three per year in the 2000s. Deaths have also declined, from more than two per year in the 1990s to less than two per year in the 2000s.
Avalon is one of the few towns that, in an era of shrinking police budgets, still maintains its own marine police unit. The department has two boats, said William McCormick, the city’s chief of police. His officers patrol from about a week before Memorial Day to about a week after Labor Day, aiding boaters who need assistance and investigating.
But when it comes to boating while intoxicated, McCormick said, “I can’t remember the last one we had.”
In Atlantic City, Patti Kearney helps operate Shamrock Marine Towing and Salvage in Gardner’s Basin. The company, owned by her husband, is the local affiliate for TowBoat U.S.
Shamrock Marine’s 11 boats and seven captains respond to boaters who have problems in nearby waters, Kearney said, such as crashing into channel markers in the middle of the day and badly damaging their craft.
It has become noticeably safer to boat in the state’s waters, she said. She pointed to Ocean City’s annual Night in Venice boat parade, once notorious for open drunkenness. A friend of hers died in one mishap during the late-July parade in 1980.
“But it’s actually become less of an issue,” Kearney said of drinking and boating. “I’m glad because I don’t want to see people get into accidents.”
New Jersey already follows two of the most important recommendations of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators: linking driving and boating licenses, and lowering the threshold blood-alcohol content to 0.08 percent.
Fetterman’s organization supports linking boating and driving licenses because, he said, “The person who is intoxicated while boating is the same person who, when he returns to the marina, gets into his car and drives home.”
The laws and penalties for driving and boating under the influence are broadly similar.
On the water, as on land, the law says that people are not allowed to pilot any vessel longer than 12 feet with a 0.08 blood-alcohol content.
The penalty for boating with 0.08 to 0.09 percent blood-alcohol content is a $250 to $400 fine, the loss of boating privileges for a year from conviction and the loss of a driver’s license for three months.
For a blood-alcohol content of 0.1 percent or greater, the fine increases to $300 to $500, the one-year boating suspension remains intact and a person cannot legally drive for seven months to a year.
Fines and penalties increase with each violation, so that after a third offense, a person can face a $1,000 fine, six months in jail and the loss of state driving and boating privileges for 10 years.
Additionally, state law requires a person to complete a boating safety course before they’re allowed out on the water.
For years, people tended to discount the problem of boating while intoxicated, Fetterman said. But he said the effects of the sun, wind and vibration of the boat all tend to intensify the effects of alcohol.
That growing awareness, plus the testimony of people who have advocated for stronger laws, has led to states tightening up their requirements.
In New Jersey, State Police are generally responsible for the lakes and inland waterways, while the Coast Guard is responsible for the waters three miles out.
State Police assigned to the Marine Services Bureau constantly watch for boaters who have had too much to drink, State Police Trooper Christopher Kay said, but there are no officers specifically assigned to that task, in part because of the changing nature of their responsibilities.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, the bureau’s main responsibilities were policing the recreational boating community as well as pollution and fish and game investigations. After 9/11, according to the bureau’s website, the bureau’s focus changed to protecting critical infrastructure from waterborne attacks, watching for suspicious activity and escorting military and chemical vessels as well as cruise ships.
The Coast Guard works with different agencies across the country, including the State Police, to enforce federal and state drunken boating laws, Petty Officer 1st Class Nick Ameen said. They are aided by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, volunteers who monitor the waterways. The agency also works to inform the public about the hazards of boating while intoxicated, urging people to designate a “Sober Skipper,” essentially a designated driver.
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