Police cracking down on boaters

Sobriety will be checked on more than just roadways this weekend.

As part of a fifth annual campaign to crack down on drunken boating and deter alcohol abuse, officers working under Operation Dry Water will patrol waters Friday through Sunday.

The nationwide effort conducted the weekend before July 4 will focus locally on Raystown Lake, said Patrol Supervisor Sgt. Craig Garman of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s law enforcement bureau.

As the largest body of water contained within Pennsylvania’s borders and its largest manmade lake, Raystown is a popular destination, which also produces a number of water-related casualties each year.

“Unfortunately, along with the deaths, we have alcohol,” Garman said.

Melissa Bean, park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Raystown Lake, said historical data dating back to 1974 shows there have been 44 water-related fatalities or one to two per year.

There were two each in 2010 and 2011. Last year, however, there were four – the worst year to date, she said.

On July 29, 2012, three men drowned in two separate incidents. On Aug. 18, 2012, a Huntingdon-area teenager dove off a cliff into the lake and didn’t resurface. His body was recovered by divers three days later.

It is only known for certain that alcohol or drugs was a factor in about 19 percent of the 44 deaths. However, Bean said alcohol contributes to a number of nonfatal boat collisions, most of which could have been prevented had a sober driver been at the helm.

Intoxication isn’t the only thing putting boaters in danger; so is failure to wear a life jacket.

U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that last year 71 percent of boating-accident victims died from drowning, and 84 percent of those who drowned weren’t wearing life jackets.

Bean said 90 percent of Raystown fatalities could have been prevented with life vests, and urging people to wear them, she said, “That’s our No. 1 message.”

Bean said she realizes that drinking is part of many recreational activities and “A lot of times when you’re out on a boat … the drinking goes hand-in-hand.”

But alcohol’s effect on the body is increased out on the water – something she said many don’t take into account.

The sun’s dehydrating heat, boat engine noise and vibrations and bobbing water all make a person more fatigued and more affected when drinking.

“Your ability to react to a situation is going to be drastically diminished,” she said.

When it comes to boating accidents, Bean said young adult males are at a five times higher risk than others, mostly because of overconfidence in boating skills masking lack of experience.

It’s about more than not knowing how to operate a boat, Garman said. It’s also difficult to catch someone operating a boat while drunk, because there aren’t straight lines in the water like there are on roads.

Officers can’t tell if someone is driving a boat erratically or weaving, he said.

And without an open-container restriction, drinking while operating a boat does not give officers probable cause to stop and conduct sobriety tests.

“They don’t think of [boating] in the same line as driving a motor vehicle,” Garman said. “They’re ‘recreating.'”

But a boating under the influence conviction carries the same penalties and jail time as a driving under the influence charge, minus a driver’s license suspension, and the 0.08 percent blood alcohol content limit is the same.

Garman said while people may be more brazen with drinking on the water, patrolmen can stop boats for safety inspections at any time and, if they suspect someone is impaired, can conduct a sobriety test and issue charges if necessary.

U.S. Coast Guard boating statistics show that roughly one-fifth of all boating fatalities were the result of alcohol in 2007, but since “Operation Dry Water” began in 2009, that number has dropped to 17 percent as of last year.

According to a campaign press release, last year officers removed 337 BUI boat operators and issued 14,514 safety citations and warnings.

“We’ve led the state for BUI arrests” for the past several years, Garman said, and all he’s asking is that people coming out to celebrate and spend a weekend on the lake stay safe.

“We’re not telling people not to go out there and have a good time,” he said, but no one is immune from tragedy.

Last week’s drowning early in the boating and fishing season should come as a reminder that life can change at any time, Garman said.

Police said John Walls, 74, of Duncansville was fishing June 20 on his boat with a friend when he lost his balance and fell overboard.

In his obituary, family members told others to “Please remember to wear a life vest!”

That’s all police are asking, Garman said.

“Just be smart.”