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Stopping drunken boating still a challenge

Suffolk County Police officer Joe Pignataro, of Suffolk

Suffolk County Police officer Joe Pignataro, of Suffolk Police's Marine Bureau, patrols the Fire Island community of Cherry Grove. (July 1, 2012) Credit: Newsday/ Thomas A. Ferrara

The mix of boating and alcohol is taking a steady, deadly toll on waterways.

Nassau and Suffolk police increased drunken-boating patrols after a fatal accident off Long Island last month, leading to a spike in arrests. But enforcement efforts over the longer run haven't measurably reduced the danger, authorities said.

Nationwide, a slowly improving economy has resulted in more people boating, but at the same time, government budget crunches have reduced patrols, marine safety experts said. "Every state agency across the country is operating below their authorized head count," said John Fetterman, director of law enforcement for the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

"We've made great strides in the past few years in increasing awareness" and debunking the cultural notion that drinking and boating go together, Fetterman said. But he added that "the people who are stopped and tested are a small percentage of the people who are actually consuming alcohol."

Alcohol behind 1 in 5 deaths

In New York, the tally of marine accidents involving alcohol and boating-while-intoxicated arrests has not changed dramatically in recent years, said the state boating administrator, Brian Kempf, director of marine services for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

"It's still contributing to 1 in 5 fatal accidents, so that's a number that is a concern," he said.

In the past decade, there have been between 14 and 27 marine fatalities a year, with the most in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. Twenty-two percent of the fatalities that year were alcohol-related, records show.

Since the mid-1990s, when the Coast Guard and local agencies began tracking the issue, BWI has been the top contributing factor in boating fatalities.

An average of 125 BWI arrests are made annually statewide by all agencies involved, Kempf said.

Tragedies in local waters

Concerns escalated with the death of a West Islip fisherman June 23. He fell overboard when the vessel he was riding on was broadsided off Captree Island by a high-performance craft. The operator of that boat was charged with BWI and may face more charges, prosecutors said.

As was the case in 2009 when the drunken driver of another "muscle boat" crashed into an island off Seaford -- killing himself, his wife and a friend -- the latest incident spurred actions and calls for tougher laws.

Nassau and Suffolk police and other agencies increased enforcement during summer weekends and the July Fourth holiday -- typically the worst BWI day of the year -- to make the point that it's no safer to drink and operate a boat than a car.

Nassau police say their Marine Bureau maintains round-the-clock coverage during the summer, with one boat each on the South Shore and North Shore watching nearly 200 miles of shoreline. Insp. Kenneth Lack, the chief Nassau police spokesman, said the Marine Bureau's manpower is comparable to past summers.

Suffolk, with 500 miles of navigable waterways, uses five boats to patrol them.

Suffolk police officers have made seven BWI arrests this year -- as many as in all of 2011 -- after the department assigned an additional South Shore patrol boat on weekends and holidays. "It's a result of more enforcement," said Suffolk County Police Deputy Insp. Kevin Fallon.

The Coast Guard has made one BWI arrest this summer in area waters. Nassau police could not provide 2012 arrest numbers.

New tools help enforcement

Safety experts said educating boaters about the dangers of alcohol is important, but enforcement is more critical.

"If people have a problem drinking, as we've seen on the highways, they're going to continue to drink," Kempf said, and the only way to change that behavior is to catch them.

Fetterman credited law enforcement with doing a better job with limited resources.

"We have new tools in our toolbox to help test people we suspect are under the influence without taking them ashore to do field sobriety tests. They're getting better at communicating with the boating public. "

Kempf said BWI patrolling is more challenging than highway patrols for law enforcement. "Just trying to conduct a stop on the water is difficult because you're on a moving platform," he said.

For boaters, alcohol can impair abilities and judgment even more than it does for motorists.

"Considering you're out in the sun, there's a lot of noise from the boat, there's the wave action and the vibration -- all of those things increase the effects of the alcohol on you," Fetterman said.

And it's harder for intoxicated boaters to realize they are having trouble controlling their vessel because "you don't have to keep your boat between the dotted lines," he said.

The fact that many boaters do not wear life jackets or understand navigation rules is a recipe for tragic accidents, Fetterman said.

Boating while intoxicated is punishable by a $500 to $1,000 fine and as much as a year in jail for first offenses -- the same as drunken driving -- and several legislators have proposed tougher penalties. State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick) is drafting legislation to create an aggravated BWI category similar to the existing aggravated DWI charge for those with a blood-alcohol level of .18 percent or higher, which would raise the fines to $1,000 to $2,500.

Some Island boaters concerned for their safety say they want more enforcement, tougher penalties and more safety education.

"Alcohol and ignorance never works," said John Syrett, a longtime boater from Bay Shore. "It's not being enforced like it is on the streets."

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