A Hidden Danger: Boating under the influence of drugs

A Department of Transportation worker looks at damage on the port side of the Staten Island Ferry boat Andrew J. Barberi Tuesday, May 11, 2010 in the Staten Island borough of New York. The Barberi, which crashed in 2003 killing 11, slammed into the St. George Terminal May 8, after losing power injuring dozens. (N.Y.Post/Chad Rachman)

Workers check out damage to the Staten Island Ferry boat Andrew J. Barberi, which crashed in 2003. The incident highlighted the potential dangers on the water from drug-impaired boaters as post-accident toxicology results revealed levels of a prescription narcotic pain reliever in the captain’s blood stream.

As we begin the summer boating season, the maritime law enforcement community is well aware of the dangers posed by operators boating under the influence of alcohol. In 2014, alcohol use was the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, accounting for 21 percent of deaths. However, there is an emerging and largely unrecognized threat to the American boating public: An increasing number of operators boating under the influence of dangerous drugs.

Below are two noteworthy cases – one recreational and one commercial – which highlight the potential dangers on the water from drug-impaired mariners.

In October 2003, the Staten Island Ferry ANDREW J. BARBERI allided with a maintenance pier shortly before her intended arrival to the St. George Ferry Terminal, resulting in the deaths of 11 passengers and left an additional 70 injured. Following a lengthy investigation by federal, state, and local authorities, it was determined that shortly before the accident, the Coast Guard credentialed Captain on watch was unconscious, leading to the allision with the pier at speed. Post-accident toxicology results revealed levels of the prescription narcotic pain reliever Tramadol in the blood stream. 

More recently, in July 2013, a pleasure vessel operating on the Hudson River, N.Y., collided with a moored and lighted construction barge under the Tappan Zee Bridge. The collision resulted in the death of two adults and severe injuries to the vessel’s remaining four occupants, including the operator. Post-accident toxicology of the owner/operator revealed a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .15 at the time of the accident as well as cocaine metabolites.

Across the U.S., enforcement of drugged driving laws, including boating under the influence, is an adjunct to the enforcement of alcohol-impaired laws. When operators are detained for showing signs of impairment, the most likely reason is alcohol intoxication. It is only in few cases where the blood alcohol concentration of the detained operator does not account for the observed behavior that a further investigation into possible drug impairment is pursued.

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that up to 25 percent of drivers involved in motor vehicle accidents tested positive for drugs, and an estimated 10.1 million persons drove under the influence of illicit drugs during the period 2006 through 2009. Since 2002, over 4,800 Coast Guard credentialed mariners have been charged with use (conviction for a dangerous drug law violation, use of, or addiction to the use of dangerous drugs) during administrative action against their credentials and over 1,100 have tested positive for dangerous drugs after being directed by the Coast Guard or marine employer to undergo testing. 

During that same period, the Coast Guard recorded over 3,600 cases of BUI; however, no definitive number of drug-related cases is available and most cases are likely attributable to alcohol-related BUI only. Recognizing the dangers associated with driving under the influence of drugs, the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy has identified the prevention of drugged driving as a national priority in its annual National Drug Control Strategies every year since 2010.

With the increasing legalization of marijuana for medicinal and/or recreational use across the nation, the epidemic of prescription drug abuse, and the prevalence of positive drug tests within the regulated maritime industry, the availability and use of dangerous drugs to the boating public continues to increase. Therefore, the maritime law enforcement community must be prepared to properly protect the public by aggressively deterring, detecting, stopping, and taking enforcement action against boaters, both recreational and commercial, operating under the influence of dangerous drugs.

In late 2014, the Coast Guard began a comprehensive review of its BUI program to identify and address any gaps in authorities, training, and detection capability for operators under the influence of dangerous drugs. As we continue that review in order to provide our personnel with the strongest tools possible to assist them in their enforcement efforts, we must work collaboratively with our maritime law enforcement partners across the federal, state, and local levels to recognize the dangers posed by drug impaired vessel operators and to develop the best tools and tactics to address this burgeoning threat to public safety. 

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