Authorities will increase enforcement on water this weekend
Boaters who operate their craft while under the influence of alcohol or drugs should rethink that practice, according to environmental police.
This weekend the state Department of Environmental Management will launch Operation Dry Water, an enforcement campaign aimed at reducing the number of alcohol- and drug-related fatalities that occur on the state’s waterways.
Think of it as a water-going DUI roadblock.
From June 28 to June 30, the state will operate in conjunction with U.S. Coast Guard units from Castle Hill and Point Judith. They will search for boat operators whose blood-alcohol content exceeds the legal limit of .08 percent. The three-day operation will feature increased enforcement patrols and Breathalyzer tests.
There will also be an effort to educate boaters on the perils of drinking and driving on the water.
Penalties for boating under the influence in Rhode Island begins with the loss of the privilege to operate a motorboat. The length of the suspension depends on a boater’s BAC and if he or she is a repeat offender. Fines, jail time and even the loss of driver’s license are possible consequences depending on the severity of the offense.
According to Sgt. Steven Criscione of the DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement, there are approximately 40,000 registered boats in the state. There are typically 60 to 80 boat accidents a year, resulting in three or four fatalities. About 20 percent of all boating fatalities nationwide are related to alcohol.
“Nationally there is a big campaign to incorporate these boating regulations under uniform statutes to try to reduce accidents,” Criscione said. “One of the big factors that people don’t realize is that the environmental stressors – sun, wind, wave action – magnify the effects of consuming alcohol.”
According to Criscione, excessive alcohol consumption impairs the judgment necessary to operate a boat safely. He said that boats are different than cars. One example is that they don’t have brakes.
Criscione added that boats require more motor skills and attention than a car.
“Most people associate boating with recreation,” Criscione said. “We’re out there trying to educate, enforce and make people aware of the dangers of alcohol to the function of boating.”
The goal, he says, is to reduce boating fatalities and injuries.
Criscione said there are certain clues that law enforcement looks for to identify a drunk boater. Among them are the failure to obey the rules of navigation, such as staying within marked channels and properly passing other boats. Other signs are similar to what police officers look for on the roads.
According to Police Chief Edward Mello, there are occasional reports of alcohol-related problems with boaters. Police are sent to investigate. The Police Department works with the harbormaster, as well as with environmental police and the Coast Guard.
The problem, however, isn’t a big one in Jamestown.
“I can tell you that last year there were no arrests for BUI made by this department,” Mello said.
That’s one reason police aren’t a mainstay on the water. Mello says there are occasionally officers on the water for holidays and special events, but the town’s Police Department has no formal water patrol.
Jamestown Harbormaster Sam Paterson agreed with Mello, saying that alcohol-related boating problems are not a big issue in town. Paterson said incidents of drunken boaters in waters surrounding Jamestown have been rare in the last 20 years.
“It isn’t a big problem,” he said. “We might have had one or two that were questionable, but I don’t think the Jamestown police were ever involved in any of them. I don’t think DEM has ever caught anybody over here in Jamestown.”
Criscione said the state is adding extra patrols for the weekend. There will probably be two additional boats on Narragansett Bay, he said, as well as added presence on the state’s lakes and waterways.
According to Criscione, law enforcement is a small division of the Department of Environmental Management. Its efforts are dictated by need. At this time last year, much of the department’s police had their attention on the crowded beaches.
“We’re putting out as many resources as we can,” Criscione said.
While the operation is strictly confined to the DEM and Coast Guard units this weekend, Criscione stressed that the state works hand in hand with local harbormasters and police forces on a regular basis.
Operation Dry Water is a national campaign launched in 2009. Last year authorities made contact with more than 49,000 boats and 116,000 boaters across the country. There were 337 BUI arrests along with 4,819 citations and 9,695 warnings during the threeday campaign.
During the 2012 operation, Rhode Island environmental police boarded 16 boats, made two arrests, issued three warnings, and took part in three search-and-rescue operations.