VT boaters could face sobriety tests on the water this summer

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.

Summer is here:Time to boat, swim and explore in Chittenden County

Boats fill slips near the Boat House in Burlington. Available boat slips are at a premium in Burlington harbor.

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. 

A Vermont State Police boat on Lake Champlain is used by the department for recreational boating enforcement. The state police have 26 boats used to patrol state waters.

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.