State's boating-while-intoxicated law could use tightening.


Mar 11, 2001
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State's boating-while-intoxicated law could use tightening.

BY TIM RENKEN Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Among Missouri's many distinctions is its friendly atmosphere for boaters. The state has many fine places to boat and excellent accommodations for boaters.

It also allows boaters to be more intoxicated than in most other states.

In Missouri a person can be hopelessly impaired without violating the state standard for BWI, boating while intoxicated. In Missouri the blood/alcohol standard for boaters is .10, vs. .08 in Illinois and most other states.

By contrast, the standard for operating a motor vehicle on the roads has recently been made more strict - from .10 percent to .08 percent. The change is due to go into effect in September.

Boating, if anything, is more demanding than operating a car or truck. Boaters don't have highways to follow or stoplights to help regulate the flow of traffic. And the sun, wind and waves have been shown to aggravate the effects of booze.

The Missouri State Water Patrol always has supported efforts that would make boating safer, including a .08 percent limit.

The reason the Missouri Legislature lowered the standard for motorists was that they were under pressure to do so. Faced with the prospect of losing federal highway money, the legislature moved the standard for blood-alcohol content in driving-while-intoxicated cases to the stricter .08 percent.There was no such monetary pressure for lowering the limit for boaters.

Would a tougher standard for boaters increase safety on the state's waters?

"Of course it would," said Sgt. Paul Kennedy, safety officer of the Missouri Water Patrol. "Obviously, getting impaired operators off the waterways will make those areas safer to other boaters."

The combination of boating and drinking is a problem on all of the state's waters and a serious problem on the Lake of the Ozarks, one of the most popular recreation lakes in the Midwest. Last year, of the state's 397 boating accidents, 177 took place on the Lake of the Ozarks. In 46 of those, alcohol was involved.

Kennedy said that almost every weekend on the lake, water patrolmen see impaired operators they don't arrest because of the likelihood those boaters wouldn't meet the .10 percent standard for prosecution.

"It happens, I'd say, four to six times a day on weekends for many of our patrolmen," he said. "Unless there is an assault or an accident, a boater has to be at .10 percent BAC (blood alcohol content) for us to take him or her off the water and in for a test. That means that every day, probably, some patrolman are leaving impaired boaters out there because it's so difficult to get prosecution if they are under the .10 percent BAC standard."

Kennedy said that patrolmen don't take BWI arrests lightly.

"Not only are our people considered to be spoiling people's fun when they make those arrests, they are taking themselves out of service for hours," he said. "A patrol officer isn't doing much for public safety if he or she has to release a suspected impaired operator that registered slightly under .10 percent BAC."

Kennedy said that some boaters arrested or cited for BWI are grateful afterward.

"We hear from many people that they are glad we got them off the water before they hurt somebody," he said. "It's not everybody, of course. Some are really resentful. I'd guess, though, it's about 50-50."

The chances that patrol officers would arrest any people who aren't genuinely intoxicated are very slim, Kennedy said.

"Our people are trained to recognize the symptoms, they even have a checklist of things to look for and ask. And then there is a series of on-the-spot tests. On most of the people we cite, though, it's very obvious.

"Earlier this year when I was working in our BAT van, where we perform the blood-alcohol tests on boaters arrested, most everyone brought in was seriously intoxicated - with blood-alcohol levels averaging in the teens.

"Even with a standard of .08 the person who isn't drunk, or maybe is only typsy, isn't going to get ticketed or arrested unless there's been an accident or assault."

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