Alcohol-related laws for boat operators should be the same as those for highway vehicle drivers, say Department of Natural Resources law enforcement officials.
“It is inconsistent that we allow open containers in boats, but not in highway vehicles,” said Robert Garrison, chief of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Bureau.
It is also inconsistent that boat operators can legally drink while driving as long as they don’t exceed the 0.08 blood alcohol limit, said Garrison, who served eight years as chief of the Iowa State Patrol before stints with the Department of Corrections and the DNR.
Sobriety afloat will be especially important during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend when many of Iowa’s 229,000 registered boats will take to the water.
Garrison and Jennifer Lancaster, DNR law enforcement supervisor for northeast Iowa, praised the Legislature for reducing the legal blood-alcohol limit for boaters from 0.10 to 0.08 last year, making that threshold consistent with the legal limit for drivers of highway vehicles.
The same justifications for restricting alcohol on the highway would apply to restricting it on the water, Lancaster said.
Garrison and Lancaster said they would support law changes that would further reduce or eliminate remaining inconsistencies.
“Boating and alcohol do not mix. I think it would be great if boaters could not drink at all,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster said the DNR has been encouraging designated boat operators who abstain from alcohol.
The DNR has no immediate plans to ask the Legislature to change boating laws, said spokesman Kevin Baskins. Educational campaigns to encourage Iowans to “leave the alcohol on shore” are in the works, he said.
Susan Stocker, the DNR’s boating law administrator, said she knows of no state that has banned open alcohol containers in boats. A bill to do so was introduced last year in the Nebraska Legislature, but it never made it out of committee, she said.
Wind, wave action, sun and glare can magnify the intoxicating effects of alcohol, she said.
Stocker said 54 boaters were cited last year for boating while intoxicated — a condition that slows reaction time and impairs judgment. The DNR also recorded 38 boating accidents last year, well below the state’s annual average of 54.
This past weekend, four people died when two boats collided at 2 a.m. Saturday on the Mississippi River. Authorities said Monday it was not yet known if alcohol played a role, but Des Moines County Sheriff Mike Johnstone said the boats were shuttling partyers to shore from an island.
Iowa boating fatalities totaled four last year, five in 2010, three in 2009, none in 2008, 10 in 2007 and five in 2006. Of the 23 boating fatalities recorded from 2006 through 2010, 13 (or 56.5 percent) involved alcohol, according to DNR statistics.
Stocker said the Mississippi River, Coralville Lake and lakes within state parks will be among Eastern Iowa’s most popular areas for motor boats on Memorial Day weekend.
That’s why the Army Corps of Engineers will step up patrols this weekend on Coralville Lake.
“Memorial Day weekend is typically the busiest of all the weekends,” said Randy Haas, chief ranger at Coralville Lake. “The DNR will be out with probably a couple of boats. Most likely the Sheriff’s Department will have a deputy or deputies on the boat with the Corps of Engineers ranger.”
The Corps relies on local law officers to assist with patrolling, because they cannot write tickets for state drinking offenses.
The number of boats on Coralville Lake is not limited, so the water can become crowded. Officers said it is difficult to patrol the entire lake because of its multiple boat-launch sites.
“It’s just like I was instructed with guns. Every gun is loaded; that boat is loaded,” said Al Kennedy, a longtime boater who was buying a boat Monday from Coralville Lake Marina. “You can enjoy it and have pleasure, or it can kill.”
Besides limiting alcohol consumption, boaters should wear a properly fitting lifejacket, Stocker said.
State law requires boat operators to carry a properly fitted wearable lifejacket for every person on board. Passengers 12 and younger are required to wear their life jackets whenever the boat is under way.
More than 50 percent of drowning victims were not wearing life jackets, Stocker said.
Staff writer Mark Carlson contributed to this story.