Arrests For Drunk Driving On The Water Dwindle – Why Would That Be?

Ahhh…summer! Time for hitting the beaches, cookouts and, as I have said before, Jimmy Buffett tunes. Today, I am reminded of another of Buffett’s songs, namely “Boat Drinks”. Maybe it is because I am dropping off my son at a boat this morning, but more likely it is because I am reminded about a crime that few people are arrested for although we know it happens a great deal. It is one area in Boston-area criminal defense one does not find many specialists.

The crime is boating while intoxicated.

For many, alcohol is as much a part of boating culture as sunscreen and fun. But in Massachusetts, where more than 140,000 recreational boaters cruise the waterways, intoxicated skippers are rarely arrested. For example, last year, boating under the influence charges were brought against just six people.

This is apparently not the same nationwide. For example, last year, Indiana had 121 such arrests. Missouri boasts 17 such arrests at on-the-water sobriety checkpoints in just one weekend.

So, have Massachusetts boaters given up the bottle for the boating? Well, Paul Milone, Weymouth’s harbormaster for 18 years, has an answer that is…interesting. He believes that boating under the influence arrests have fallen off slightly in this decade since lawmakers introduced tougher penalties after a fatal boating accident.

“Around the area and on the South Shore, it still persists,” Milone admits, estimating that up to 40 percent of boat operators are impaired by mid-afternoon on a sunny weekend. “Don’t forget, one beer on the water equals three beers on land. The sun, the motion, the heat it destroys their judgment.” However, he claims that he rarely places a boater under arrest. After all, that would apparently mean leaving the coast unpatrolled for up to two hours while the arrest was processed.

To avoid the problem, he says he often confiscates the intoxicated skipper’s boat keys and has him summon his first mate or a taxi for a ride home.

“My main purpose is to get them off the water,” Milone said. “Of course, those aren’t recorded.”

On the other hand, some would say that while this method removes an immediate threat from the water, it also undermines a 1995 law that elevated the punishment for drunken boating to include temporary loss of a driver’s license.

How strictly that sea-version of OUI has been enforced is unclear. The Registry of Motor Vehicles is unable to say how many intoxicated boaters had their licenses suspended, spokeswoman Ann Dufresne said, because convictions for drunken boating and automobile drunken driving are indistinguishable in computerized records.

Under the law, a boater’s automobile license may be suspended for 120 days if the individual refuses to take a Breathalyzer test.

On the brighter side, national statistics indicate that recreational boating has become less deadly. Fatalities from recreational boating accidents dropped from 1,466 in 1975 to 685 in 2007, according to U.S. Coast Guard figures. Alcohol was cited as a factor in 23 percent of the 2007 deaths.

In Massachusetts from 2003 to 2008, alcohol was found to be a contributing factor in 19 of the 224 reported boating accidents, resulting in 10 out of 45 total deaths.
There remains, however, some skepticism about the records which reveal that Massachusetts authorities racked up just 82 arrests for boating under the influence in the 10 years leading to 2008, as Registry records show.

“I almost can’t believe those figures,” said James Carlin, founder of Boaters Against Drunk Driving. “It would seem to me one guy would make more arrests.”

Some believe that manpower may play a role in authorities’ ability to enforce drunk boating laws. Other states’ experience, for example, show that an increase in water patrols usually means an increase in drunk boating arrests. Lt. William Freeman, commander of the Massachusetts State Police marine unit, said his unit typically has three boats patrolling Boston Harbor and the Charles and Mystic rivers. Along with enforcing and promoting boating safety, troopers respond to vessels in distress, perform underwater recovery and provide security for an offshore liquefied natural gas plant, among other tasks.

Drunken boating arrests tend to result from an accident, he said. Freeman pointed out that drivers are permitted to drink at the tiller or wheel, so long as their blood-alcohol level does not surpass 0.08. “It’s such a narrow line you’re crossing,” Freeman said. “The guy can have a couple of a drinks, and everyone in the boat can be fall-down drunk.”

Like state police, the Environmental Police “don’t make that many arrests for boating under the influence,” nor do they keep statistics on the ones they do make, spokeswoman Kate Plourd said.

Among an estimated 2,000 boats that crowded the Boston waterfront for the Fourth of July, Freeman said there was not a single accident or arrest. Many boats had designated drivers, he said, and others were smart enough to stay anchored and head home in the morning.

“If it was a problem, you would see more boating accidents,” he said
Attorney Sam’s Take:

Why do I get the feeling that the approach to drunk boating is reminiscent of how drunk drivers were treated so many years ago? You know, a drunk driver is pulled over and told, “Come on now, Mr. Smith. I am taking your keys. Call up the wife to pick you up and you can have your keys back tomorrow morning, along with a speech that will make your hangover just alittle worse.”

There would seem to be a difference in attitude between combating drunk driving and drunk driving. Could it simply be because there are fewer boat accidents than car accidents, beside our hearing more and more stories on the news of people “disappearing” for a time from their boat, mandating a search party that is not always successful in finding them alive?

Could it perhaps be that “Boaters Against Drunk Driving” have more clout than “Mothers Against Drunk Driving”? Do you think there could be a connection between a higher percentage of wealth with respect to recreational boaters than most automobile drivers?

Well, these are questions to ponder. However, you may be sure that if you drink, boat and kill someone, it is still a homicide and the lives involved will be just as permanently changed as they would be if it were an automobile accident.
Including your own.

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