N.Y. Gov. Proposes New Legislation to Require Drug/Alcohol Testing of Operators in Boat Accidents

October 13, 2005

New York Gov. George Pataki has proposed legislation that would require operators of commercial boats involved in incidents – where passenger(s) are severely injured or killed – to undergo an immediate, mandatory chemical test to determine if the operator was under the influence or alcohol or drugs. The legislation follows the recent fatal incident with the tour boat Ethan Allen on Lake George, when 20 passengers were killed.

The Governor also directed the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to take a number of interim steps pending the full outcome of the NTSB investigation. This includes instituting lower capacity limits for tour boats it certifies while New York awaits a pending Coast Guard decision on changing outdated federal boating weight standards.

The Governor sent a letter to Admiral Thomas Collins, commandant of the United States Coast Guard, requesting that they expedite their decision. He also directed Parks to undertake a comprehensive review of certain boating regulations, such as crew requirements and require safety briefings on all public vessels.

“New York has some of the strongest boating laws in the nation,” Gov. Pataki said. “But when a tragedy like the Ethan Allen occurs, it’s imperative that every step is taken to ensure that law enforcement officials have all potential evidence that will allow them to swiftly and fully investigate a fatal commercial boating accident. Not only will an immediate and mandatory test demonstrate if an operator involved in a serious boating incident was under the influence, it will also protect those operators who aren’t.”

“While we await action by the Coast Guard to change what are clearly outdated federal weight standards and for the NTSB investigation to be completed, I have directed State Parks to immediately institute a series of interim steps to protect New Yorkers, including imposing lower capacity limits for the tour boats it certifies,” the Governor said. “This action only affects a small number of commercial boats in New York that don’t operate in federal waters, so we urge the Coast Guard to act as quickly as possible.”

“We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure that our boating laws allow for people to continue to safely enjoy New York’s wonderful waterways, and these new measures mark another step in our efforts,” the Governor added.

Under current State law, every person operating a vessel on the waters of the state, which has been involved in an accident shall, at the request of a police officer, submit to a breath test. If such test indicates that the operator has consumed alcohol, the police officer may request the operator to submit to a more comprehensive chemical test to determine the drug or alcohol content of the operator’s blood.

The Governor’s proposal would make it mandatory for law enforcement officials to immediately administer this chemical test to all operators of public, or commercial, vessels that have been involved in a accident causing death, disappearance or serious physical injury, allowing for the identification and/or elimination of alcohol or drugs as a factor in a boating accident in the earliest stages of an investigation.

In the event that an operator of a commercial boat fails to submit to a chemical test, the Governor’s proposal calls for the immediate suspension of the operator’s boating privileges and the immediate revocation of any public boating licenses issued by the state. This provision would be stronger than current federal regulations along with a fine of not less than $2,500. In addition, the proposal allows for the refusal by an operator of commercial vessel to submit to a chemical test to be used as evidence at any subsequent criminal or administrative hearing.

The Governor directed the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to take the following interim steps pending the full outcome of the NTSB investigation and action by the Coast Guard on new federal boating weight standards:

* In accordance with the recommendation of the NTSB, immediately adopt a new weight standard in NYS for capacity, raising the existing weight from 140 lbs to 174 lbs, pending final adoption of a weight standard by the U.S. Coast Guard;
* Immediate review all existing certificates of inspection to assure compliance with new weight standard;
* Periodically recertify the weight capacity of all public vessels;
* Strengthen staffing requirements for public vessels including experience and training requirements for crew members;
* Require a verbal safety briefing for passengers before commencement of operation on the use and location of personal flotation devices and other safety devices; and
* Increase in penalties for owners and operators who fail to comply with statute, regulations and conditions of certificate of operation.

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