A Collaborative Response to Boating Under the Influence

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Touted by some as having capabilities that border on miraculous, alcoholic beverages definitely have their share of reputations. Said to have the ability to make people dance, pick a fight with someone twice their size and even make clothes fall off, beverage alcohol, known as ethanol, is the most abused drug in the United States.

Collab-ResponseSmall quantities of this central nervous system depressant may relax or “loosen” a person’s inhibitions, but we all know what happens when people ingest larger quantities and become a danger to themselves and others. Casualty reports submitted by the state reporting authorities give us a glimpse into just how dangerous it can be to mix too much beverage alcohol with recreational boating.

It’s not unusual for tragedy to serve as a call to action. Many of our state and federal public safety laws had a tragic beginning, and that is probably most true when it comes to our laws addressing impaired operators on our highways and waterways. In most instances, these laws are quite comprehensive, have fairly stiff penalties, and call for increased penalties for repeat offenders. Without effective enforcement of the laws, merely having strong laws on the books is of marginal value.

During the summer of 2014, two separate alcohol-related boat crashes in the south Florida county of Miami-Dade killed a total of five young people and left others injured and traumatized. The local news media began directing attention toward the alcohol and drug problem on the vast local waterways, and once again tragedy served as a call to action.

With the eyes of several local officials fixed squarely on the problem of impaired boat operators and the local media intently watching, the leaders of a number of partner law enforcement agencies took it upon themselves to double-down their efforts to tackle the issue head-on. A local marine law enforcement task force was formed, with representation from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, and the leaders of those agencies made it clear to their personnel that the “new norm” was zero tolerance for persons operating boats on area waterways while impaired.

It soon became clear that this wasn’t just rhetoric from leadership. The marine law enforcement officers in the area received training in the use of the standardized field sobriety tests for persons in the seated position. Some officers were selected to take advanced training to become Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) to assist in gathering important evidence when impaired operators were found to be under the influence of drugs other than alcohol. Additional breath testing instruments were acquired and were strategically located in order to improve the timeline for obtaining evidentiary breath samples.

Zero_final_logosMajor Alfredo Escanio, FWC’s Regional Commander for the state’s three southern-most counties, explained it this way: “The key is for our personnel to understand that BUI is a priority and leadership is behind it. They must know that this is the new norm and it will not go away. Also, our troops must know that we are supporting them and are doing everything we can to improve their training, equipment, etc.”

A critical part of the “new norm” involved targeted enforcement of the state’s BUI laws. Every marine enforcement officer came to know that impaired operators were the priority target. Multi-agency BUI enforcement details were scheduled on a monthly basis, and it soon became obvious to the boating public that boat operators who over-indulged were being detected and taken to jail. BUI arrests in the area increased significantly and remain steady to this day.

Officers were trained. Leaders have shown steadfast emphasis, support, and engagement. Violators were apprehended and prosecuted. Consider the effort a success, right?

The real success of any such endeavor should be measured in ways other than how many officers participated and how many drunk boaters were arrested. Success is partly about whether the effort is a short-lived emphasis or whether looking for signs of impairment becomes the norm when on-water patrols. Success is also measured both by changes in boater behavior and reduction in alcohol-related boating casualties and accidents.

Since beginning the BUI enforcement emphasis, Miami-Dade County has seen a reduction in recreational boating accidents overall and has yet to have another alcohol-related recreational boating fatality. Not bad for a county with some of the most diverse and extensive boating opportunities in the world…a county with the seventh highest county population in the U.S. (more than 2.6 million residents in 2014) and more than 63,000 registered boats in 2014 (which is more than 18 states and U.S. territories). Clearly this effort continues to be a remarkable success story.

Given the statistics and the fact that the emphasis on BUI enforcement and deterrence in this area is likely to continue for quite some time, people who enjoy the water in and around Miami-Dade County will benefit from a much safer boating environment.

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