Seated sobriety test, tougher laws take aim at drunken boaters



“Cirrhosis Of The River”

Some of the most celebrated boat names on the Internet are telling of society’s acceptance toward drinking on the open water.

“A six-pack of beer and boating go together like a peanut butter and jelly. There are still a lot of people that think that’s just the way it is,” says John Fetterman, law enforcement director with the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA).

Fatal boat accidents where alcohol is believed to have played a role seem relentless this time of year.

Last week, a 33-year-old Idaho woman died when the jet boat she was riding in ran aground off the Snake River near Idaho Falls. Police suspect the vessel’s driver was drunk.

In late July, a bride-to-be and her fiancé’s best man were killed in a crash on the Hudson River in New Jersey. Police have alleged that the man piloting the powerboat was intoxicated and are awaiting the result of blood tests.

Alcohol use has been the top contributing factor in fatal boating accidents for the past 15 years, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Since 2003, on average, 124 people have died each year in the U.S. in accidents where alcohol was to blame.

A strategic plan by the Coast Guard, overseer of the congressionally mandated National Recreational Boating Safety Program, calls for a 5 percent overall reduction in the number of alcohol-related deaths by 2016.

“With this many fatalities, it’s never not been a priority for us,” says Joe Carro, a Coast Guard boating safety specialist told Yahoo News. “We’re going at it the best we can.”

Part of the Coast Guard’s plan has been to give state and local agencies better tools to combat boating under the influence. Marine officers in 38 states are now using a Coast Guard-funded seated sobriety test. The battery of evaluations includes suspects touching their fingers to their noses and following palm pat instructions among other things while seated in their boats.

“When you’re out on a boat, it’s pretty hard to have somebody walk the white line,” says Fetterman, whose organization trains states on how to administer the test.

Some states are also making strides on tougher boating under the influence laws. In May, Georgia lowered its blood-alcohol limit for boaters from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, the same threshold used by most states. Michigan, Wyoming and North Dakota still use 0.10 percent, according to NASBLA.

Last month, Illinois became the 15th state to pass legislation making it possible to punish drunken boaters by revoking their automobile driver’s licenses.

The Illinois crackdown came about after a boater who was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine ran over and killed 10-year-old Tony Borcia in July 2012.

The boy was tubing behind a pontoon boat when he fell off into the water. Tony, wearing a red life jacket, was bobbing in the water and waving his arms while waiting for his father and siblings to retrieve him when David Hatyina, then 50, sped right over the top of him.

“We do not want another family going through what we are going through,” Tony’s mother, Margaret Borcia, told Yahoo News.

They’ve started a nonprofit called Y-noT Project to encourage boaters to designate a sober operator.

“It seems like drinking and boating is the last socially acceptable place where you can drink and drive,” Borcia says.

At his sentencing last month, Hatyina reportedly told the Borcia’s that he’s never forgiven himself for drinking and ingesting “a small amount” of cocaine the day he killed Tony. “I feel so badly. The pain will never go away,” he said in court. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Borcia said another goal of the family’s nonprofit is to increase funding for better marine patrols and to encourage the public to report bad behavior. Police investigating Tony’s death learned from a witness that they had seen a boat matching Hatyina’s driving recklessly hours earlier.

“The boat that hit Tony was called ‘Purple Haze,’” Borcia said.

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