Peril on the water

Missouri leads the nation in alcohol-related boating accidents, with 41 last year.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:37 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Former Marine Delmas Bartley spent three years in Vietnam and said he understood the dangers his 19-year-old son, Dustin Bartley, would face when he started his tour of duty.

Dustin Bartley had attended Marine combat training at Fort Leonard Wood and knew that within a year he might be headed to Iraq or Afghanistan. But the young Marine spent the last hour of his life far away from a combat zone, drinking with friends on a pontoon boat at the Lake of the Ozarks. He fell off the roof of the pontoon boat, hit his head on a jet ski and drowned. “That’s the last thing I ever would have thought my son would have died from,” Delmas Bartley said.

The Missouri State Water Patrol counted Dustin Bartley’s death as an alcohol-related boating fatality for 2003. Between 2000 and 2004, Missouri led the nation in alcohol-related boating accidents, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Coast Guard.

“That shocks me,” said Virgil Chambers, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, a nonprofit funded in part by government agencies involved in recreational boating. “I would think it would have been a state like California or Florida.”

For the past five years, 24 percent of boating accidents in Missouri involved alcohol. The 37 alcohol-related deaths made up more than half of the total fatalities on Missouri’s waters, according to U.S. Coast Guard figures. The Coast Guard ranks Missouri 13th in the nation for the number of registered boats, but registration requirements differ by state.

The Missouri State Water Patrol reported 13 alcohol-related boating accidents over Labor Day weekend, a 32 percent decrease compared to the same period last year. Boating-while-intoxicated arrests on charges of boating while intoxicated were also down in 2005 compared to last year.

“The reports we’re getting from officers around the state is that traffic was down on Labor Day, and they attribute that to the high gasoline prices,” said Missouri State Water Patrol Sgt. Ralph Bledsoe.

Bledsoe said the Lake of the Ozarks was the only lake in the state that seemed unaffected by high gas prices.

“Traffic certainly hasn’t backed off,” Bledsoe said.

The Lake of the Ozarks topped the list for boating accidents in Missouri, and it is the most dangerous body of water to drink and boat. Between 2000 and 2004, the lake had more alcohol-related accidents than anywhere else in the nation, including the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, according to U.S. Coast Guard data.

Alcohol coupled with larger boats and heavy boat traffic can create a hazardous mix.

“It’s as though people don’t realize the inherent danger,” said state Rep. Wayne Cooper, R-Camdenton, who has introduced boating-safety legislation for the past two years. “People’s lives are lost, yet a lot of people seem to have the attitude that it’s just for your own pleasure, and no one has any right to put any restrictions or guidelines on it. It just baffles me.”

It has been 20 years since then-Gov. Kit Bond’s Commission on Crime put together a task force on boating safety. Some of the recommendations included suspending driver’s licenses for boating-while-intoxicated offenses and increasing the number of water patrol officers across the state to 126 by 1989. Missouri has 94 active water patrol officers and did not adopt the recommendation to tie boating violations to drivers licenses.

“Lake of the Ozarks is the number one resource in my district,” Cooper said. “If we don’t take care of safety on the lake, and we don’t make it a place where tourists can come, and people want to enjoy themselves with recreation and boating, then all my constituents will suffer. I feel like it’s a big economic driver.”

Mike Kenagy, executive director of the Lake West Chamber of Congress, which represents businesses on the west side of Lake of the Ozarks, agrees that safe boating environments are important to the tourism industry.

“I think there’s always that underlying concern whenever we do have a bad accident around here,” Kenagy said. “But I’m not seeing it driving anybody away.”

Changing Missouri’s boating and drinking laws depends on the efforts of legislators, lobbyists, boaters and residents, and in recent years the legislature has made strides to help improve safety on the state’s waterways.

Cooper co-sponsored a new boater education law that went into effect this year. It requires people born after Jan. 1, 1984, to pass a boating education test before operating a motorized watercraft on a public lake. The Water Patrol has mounted a campaign to educate people about the requirement, which will be enforced in 2006. The law does not apply to streams, rivers and private waterways.

“That was one of the most important things I saw pass in our district, because it means everybody should have at least some operational knowledge of a watercraft, and how things are posted on the waterway,” Cooper said.

State Rep. Harold Selby, D-Cedar Hill, questions whether the law goes far enough. Selby said people over 21 cause most of the boating accidents, and he doesn’t think the test should be limited to teenagers.

“Why are we doing this boater-safety training, but we’re not targeting the group that’s causing all the problems?” Selby said.

In another effort to improve safety, Missouri passed a law this year allowing chemical urine tests to measure the blood-alcohol content of watercraft operators.

“It gives us another means to test and obtain information,” Water Patrol Capt. Hans Huenink said. “Particularly in a boating accident, alcohol is not always the culprit.”

Unlike a Breathalyzer, urine tests can also detect drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Getting arrested for boating while intoxicated carries the same penalties as drunken driving, a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail for a first offense, however it’s legal to drink alcohol and drive a boat and the blood-alcohol limit is 0.10 percent for boat operators; compared to 0.08 for motor-vehicle drivers. In 2005, the state stiffened penalties for repeat drunken drivers but not drunken boat operators.

Michael Boland, the Missouri president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the standards should be the same.

“You still have a motorized vehicle, and you’re traveling on a public thoroughfare. As much as we would like to say there’s a difference, there’s no difference,” Boland said.

Lt. Col. Mike Smith of the water patrol said the inconsistencies send the wrong message.

“If you stop someone on the water and they’re under 0.10 and we release them, they can get in a motor vehicle and be legally over the limit,” Smith said.

The water patrol plans to recommend adopting the .08 standard for boats during the next legislative session.

Driving a boat while impaired can be more dangerous than driving a car, Smith said.

“If you’re in a car, you have lines and markers telling you exactly where you can drive and where you can’t,” Smith said. “The sun is not hitting you directly in the eyes because you have a roof, you have windshields, you have tinted windows. You have the wave motion out here that you wouldn’t have on the highway.”

Smith unlocked the door to a storage shed just off U.S. Highway 54, near the Lake of the Ozarks. Inside, fiberglass and splintered wood dangled from the front end of a red speed boat. Smith said a larger boat ran over the red boat when the two collided almost head-on. A passenger was badly injured and knocked into the water.

“The bigger boat in an accident is going to win every time,” Smith said.

While investigators are still determining the cause of the accident, Smith said beer cans and wine coolers were found in the red boat.

“At least 50 percent of the time when alcohol is involved, it’s a contributing factor,” Smith said.

In fiscal 2004, the number of registered boats in Missouri was almost 10 percent higher than 20 years ago, according to figures from the water patrol. Cooper would like the state to increase boater registration fees and use the additional money to hire more water patrol officers and increase their salaries.

The water patrol funding bill Cooper introduced in the 2005 legislative session did not pass.

“I just think that there were more priorities in front of it,” Cooper said. “We did an enormous amount of big legislation, and there’s only a limited time. It just didn’t rank high enough when you’re doing education reform and the foundation formula, Medicaid reform, meth reform, etc.”

Selby, who lives on his boat at the Lake of the Ozarks half the year, argued against the bill on the House floor because he said not all of the money was going directly to the water patrol; the first $2 million raised would go into a general revenue fund.

“As boaters we are already paying a lot of money to have a boat, rent the slip, take care of the dock,” Selby said. “We pay a lot more for gas on the lake. But why should we then subsidize the general revenue fund more than anyone else?”

But after seeing a family pulled out on stretchers from a boating accident this summer, Selby said he will support Cooper’s bill in the next legislative session and would be willing to co-sponsor it.

“Something just has to be done,” Selby said.

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