The Michigan Legislature wants to toughen the law regarding alochol limits for boaters.
Alcohol typically plays a role in about a third of reported boating deaths each year, according to the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents. The report is based on information from the state Department of Natural Resources.
There were 178 reported boating accidents in Michigan last year, up about 6 percent from 2004 but down from totals recorded earlier this decade. There were 29 reported boating fatalities in 2005, up from 26 the year before.
Two bills introduced by House lawmakers would lower the blood alcohol content threshold for drunken boating from the current .10 percent to .08 percent. The bills are opposed by some groups, and even supporters say they won’t do much good unless education efforts and lake police patrols are increased.
But matching up drunken boating thresholds with drunken driving thresholds would be a good start, the lawmakers say.
Operating a boat is just as important and no less a hazard, than operating a car, said state Rep. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton. Her bill to lower drunken boating standards has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.
Rep. Neal Nitz, R-Baroda, introduced a similar bill this month.
An accident in The Donnell Lake was the motivation for the bill.
Illinois resident Joe Zielinski’s young son was killed in a boating when
a personal watercraft driver with a blood alcohol content that would have gotten him arrested for drunken driving on a highway slammed into the tube carrying 7-year-old Ryan Zielinski on Cass County’s Donnell Lake in southwest Michigan. .
Prosecutors say Brandon Cripe, the personal watercraft driver, had a blood alcohol content of about .08 when tested after the accident. He pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.
If .08 had been the drunken boating threshold, however, the 34-year-old from Mishawaka, Ind., could have been charged with a 15-year felony for having an unlawful blood alcohol content causing death.
The discrepancy bothers Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz, who sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to make the alcohol levels in the watercraft and roadway drunken driving laws the same. Area high school students gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions urging the changes.
We need to provide prosecutors, judges and police with the maximum tools available where they have these tragedies, Fitz said.
The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association is opposed to the bills. It notes that, while the federal government threatened to withhold road dollars from states that didn’t lower alcohol levels to .08 in drunken driving laws, there’s no federal mandate to change drunken boating laws.
The association said lawmakers’ efforts would be better focused on strengthening penalties against those who drive with very high blood alcohol contents, whether on the road or on the waterways.
The Michigan Boating Industries Association supports the bills and said it promotes programs aimed at getting watercraft operators to leave the driving to others when they’ve been drinking.
Those sorts of self-education efforts may be crucial to lowering the number of boating accidents in the state, a spokesman for the Michigan Association of Insurance Agents said.
“Given the large number of lakes accessible to boaters and the limited number of law enforcement officers, it is almost impossible to enforce any legal measures,” said Gary Mitchell of MAIA. “Any long-term trend in reducing accidents will have to be the result of boaters acting responsibly.”
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