Law enforcement in Vermont will be conducting new sobriety tests for boaters on the water if they suspect the boaters are under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
Vermont has seen at least one boating-related fatality per year since 2015, according to the Vermont State Police. Law enforcement typically encounter the highest numbers of alcohol-related boating incidents in June and July, including during Independence Day we.
The new protocols are meant to better equip law enforcement where training has fallen short in the past to try to prevent tragedy before it occurs, said Vermont State Police Sgt. Jay Riggen, the agency’s expert on impaired driving.
“Frankly, whether it’s on the highways or on the waterways, I believe that society expects police officers not to stop every tragedy before it happens, but I think they do expect us to try,” Riggen said during a news conference this week in Colchester.
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What is law enforcement doing differently this year?
Law enforcement have typically stopped boaters on the water that they suspect of operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Riggen said. However, the drivers have been typically taken back to shore to conduct further tests around their sobriety — a method that Riggen said was time-consuming and often logistically challenging, including when needing to find a second sober person to operate the vessel safely back to shore.
Now, the sobriety testing will take place on the suspect’s boat. Vermont law enforcement have adopted methods used by the U.S. Coast Guard to test a person’s nervous system functionality while the person is sitting down. The officer may also ask the boat operator to take a preliminary breath test to measure blood alcohol content.
What does Vermont law say about boating while intoxicated?
According to Vermont law, boating while impaired by alcohol or drugs is illegal. A person may not operate a vessel under the following circumstances:
- When the person’s blood alcohol content is 0.08%.
- When the person is under the influence of alcohol.
- When the person is impaired by alcohol and drugs in a way that makes him or her unable to operate the vessel safely.
In other words, a person can still be taken into custody for allegedly boating while intoxicated even if their blood alcohol content is lower than 0.08%. Riggen said that this is because nervous system failures can occur before that point.
BWI penalties and fines
Possible penalties for boating while intoxicated include imprisonment for up to a year and the following fines:
- Between $200 and $750 for a first offense.
- Between $250 and $1,000 for a second offense.
People who cause serious bodily injury to another person while boating under the influence can face up to 15 years in prison and $5,000 in fines. People who kill another person while boating under the influence can face between one and 15 years in prison and $10,000 in fines, according to Vermont law.
Safety tips on the water
Representatives from Vermont Fish and Wildlife and the Colchester Police Department, which has a marine unit, also gave the following safety tips during a news conference this week:
- Have a designated driver — someone who is sober, familiar with operating the boat, and knows the waterway and terrain.
- Have enough personal flotation devices for everyone on board, and make sure they’re accessible.
- Have an air horn or flares on the vessel so the boat can be located if it gets lost.
- Stay at least 200 feet away from other vessels or objects in the water.
- Know Vermont’s laws and regulations around boating on the state’s waterways.