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Multi-agency effort aims to get drunk boaters off water

| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A private watercraft cruises the Ohio River.

You can have fun, but be smart about it.

Remember your dad telling you that? Well, increasingly, the people charged with keeping the country's waterways safe are saying the same thing.

They've been delivering that message in a big way this weekend in preparation for the July 4 holiday, the busiest boating time of the year.

Officers from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies around the country kicked off Operation Dry Water on Friday. It continues through Sunday. It's a combination outreach and law enforcement effort aimed at preventing BUI, or boating under the influence, cases.

“Just as society is no longer tolerant of people operating their motor vehicle while under the influence, it's no longer tolerant of people operating a boat while under the influence,” said John Fetterman, the Fox Chapel native and Pitt graduate who serves as deputy executive director of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, which coordinates the Dry Water effort.

“Boating is such a fun family activity. It's a great way to get out and enjoy one of the country's greatest natural resources. But if you put my family at risk or other people in your boat at risk, that's no longer an acceptable part of the boating experience.”

Indeed, Pennsylvania lawmakers changed the rules just a few years ago so that a person can be prosecuted for boating under the influence when their blood alcohol content reaches 0.08 percent. That's the same standard applied in driving under the influence cases.

Operation Dry Water began in 2009. It's grown over time, so that officers from 550 agencies — representing every state and U.S. territory — are participating this year, said the Boating Law Administrators' project manager, Hannah Helsby.

It's a big deal, she said, because accident statistics show a clear link between boating and drinking.

“Alcohol is the No. 1 contributing factor in recreational boating fatalities,” Helsby said.

Locally, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officers have been emphasizing BUI patrols for several years. Early on, that raised some eyebrows.

“It wasn't that anyone dismissed it. But when I'd walk into court with a BUI case, the reaction sometimes was like, ‘Boating under the influence? Really?' ” said Larry Furlong, formerly a waterways conservation officer in Allegheny County and now an assistant director in the commission's bureau of law enforcement.

That's no longer the case, he said.

Most of the BUI incidents locally occur on the rivers around Pittsburgh, said John Hopkins, an assistant manager in the commission's southwest region law enforcement office in Somerset.

“But in the last couple of years, every county in the region has had a BUI apprehension,” he said.

Hopkins himself made the first BUI arrest in Indiana County two years ago and got another drunk boater last year, both times on Yellow Creek Lake.

The number of BUI arrests is still relatively small. Commission officers prosecuted 90 people last year, 12 of them in the 10-county southwest region and 11 in the nine-county northwest. But that was up from 60 prosecutions in 2012, 62 in 2011 and 65 in 2010.

Commission officers had made 24 BUI arrests this year heading into the weekend.

Hopkins attributed the spike to increased training and enforcement. The commission considers BUI enforcement one of its “top priorities.”

Furlong agreed, noting its entire law enforcement field staff, along with regional managers and deputies, were working Operation Dry Water this weekend.

“If we don't stop them on the water, a lot of people trailer their boats, so they end up on the highways. That's the way we look at it,” Hopkins said.

Nationally, Operation Dry Water resulted in law enforcement officers making contact with more than 144,000 people last year. More than 4,900 citations of some sort were issued, with 290 BUI arrests made. That was fewer than in any of the three previous years.

Boating fatalities tied to alcohol were also down by 31 percent last year, according to the 2013 U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics report.

“That's huge. That's the first time the needle's moved in 20 years,” Fetterman said.

Whether that's the start of a trend related to Operation Dry Water or a one-year anomaly is hard to say, Fetterman admitted.

Either way, responsible boaters are appreciative of the enforcement effort, said Bob Brandenstein of Sewickley Township, national education officer for U.S. Power Squadrons, a volunteer boating safety training organization. It “strongly encourages” people to not drink at all if they plan to operate a boat, he said.

There are legal reasons for that, Brandenstein said. According to Fetterman, those convicted of boating under the influence can face not only fines but loss of their driving privileges and even jail time.

“More importantly than that, you can jeopardize the other people in your boat,” Brandenstein said. “If you kill someone or even injure them, you have to live with that for the rest of your life.”

Fetterman is hopeful people are getting the idea. Boating should be a safe activity, and it's often not when alcohol is involved, he said.

“This is the age of the soccer mom mentality. Parents are more involved in their kids' lives than ever. But they want things to be safe,” Fetterman said.

“I love to take my grandchildren out boating, for example. But guess what? If my wife decides that taking the kids out puts them at risk, I've got to sell my boat. That's just the way it is.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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