There were more brown pelicans than drunken boaters on the water as July 4th approached, and L.A. Sheriff’s Deputy Bryan White and his team hope to keep it that way.
“The weekends are always the busiest,” he said as the Sheriff’s boat pulled away from its Marina Del Rey berth. The deputies on board scouted no visibly impaired boaters, so they demonstrated the portable screening device that helps signal whether a boat driver needs dockside checking for alcohol.
The Independence Day holiday is the deadliest road driving holiday of the year, exceeding even New Year’s Eve, officials say, and boating accidents also spike. Of fatal boating accidents, the U.S. Coast Guard reported, 17 percent involve alcohol.
The short and simple way to avoid this: find a designated driver before the drinking starts, and don’t let someone drink and pilot a boat.
When BUI Turns Deadly
News reports make it clear that when water and alcohol combine, the result is often tragedy.
Days before July 4th, it was reported that relatives of a woman killed in a 2012 Delaware River alcohol-related boating accident filed a wrongful death suit against the vessel’s owner and alleged pilot, Wayne George. He is pending trial for manslaughter and vehicular homicide in the New Jersey case. Reports quote witnesses saying the boat was traveling too fast and struck a boulder in an area known for them. The daughter of the victim, Lane Alden, 57, contends that boat owner George observed alcohol being consumed by Donald Jessamine but permitted him to pilot his jet boat. Jessamine has been charged with second-degree vehicular homicide and first-degree aggravated manslaughter for negligently or recklessly driving the boat when his BAC was more than .08, which is New Jersey’s legal limit.
The LehighValleylive.com reported, “blood alcohol tests, administered about four hours after the accident, revealed Jessamine had a BAC of 0.09. Experts have estimated his BAC at the time of the accident was about 0.15, records say.”
In another fatal boating accident involving alcohol, the pilot and a passenger in an inflatable motorboat were killed when it plowed into the beam of a pedestrian overpass at high tide, the Orange County Register reported. After midnight on June 27, 2009, Sean Wilson was driving the boat, which struck a support beam of Gilbert Drive Bridge. Wilson and Caleb Steele died in the crash. A third man was knocked unconscious and suffered brain injuries but lived.
According to the Orange County Coroner’s Office, the Register reported, toxicology tests revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.13 for Wilson and a BAC of .20 for Steele. The legal limit for driving a boat is the same as for cars, 0.08.
These sorts of tragedies are behind the public education program aimed at preventing accidents during this high drinking and boating season. For every person killed in a boating accident, 70 more are injured, the Coast Guard reports.
“It’s not that often, but it does happen,” said L.A. Sheriff Deputy Rich Godfrey, the pilot of the marine division’s BUI patrol boat, “and it will happen.”
The Summer Drinking Season Begins
As July 4th kicks off “the summer drinking season,” law enforcement is reminding the public to be watchful for boaters impaired by alcohol or drugs and to report them, White said.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Resource Center notes that penalties for BUI range across states but can include fines, loss of operator privileges and jail time. The Coast Guard also has the ability to enforce a federal law that prohibits BUI. Every state in the U.S. employed Operation Dry Water, a national campaign conducted the weekend prior to the 4th of July – a combination dress rehearsal and early warning system for the holiday.
The search was on for floating driver hazards on waterways, from lakes to rivers to harbors. While the results of the program are not yet counted, “The NASBLA [National Association of State Boating Law Enforcement] and the U.S. Coast Guard have been collecting and analyzing data on Operation Dry Water since the program began in 2009, and the data clearly shows that this event has a significant impact on boating under the influence and educating recreational boaters,” notes the Operation Dry Water website.
Back in Marina del Rey, L.A. Sheriff’s Department’s BUI team said that smaller boats are more likely to have impaired operators than yachts and ships.
“The big boats usually have a hired skipper and they aren’t going to drink,” said Godfrey. “That would be as serious as an airline pilot drinking.”
As the summer season is underway by July 4th, millions board vessels this weekend to party and watch fireworks over the water – which doubles the sight as it mirrors the sky. And amid the flock to the water, injuries dramatically rise, officials say. Rookie boaters are especially prone to mishaps amid more crowded waterways, filled with flotillas of partiers.
The vast majority of the 700 to 800 people annually who are killed in boating accidents – more than 80 percent – are victims of drowning, the Coast Guard reported. And inebriation only further handicaps a boater.