Georgia more lenient on water than land

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Georgia boaters can drink more alcohol with less fear of being arrested than boaters in many other states.
Most states require the blood-alcohol content of a boat operator to be lower than .08 — often the same limit imposed on those operating cars. But, in Georgia, the legal alcohol limit for boat drivers is .10, even though Georgians who get behind the wheel of a car must keep their blood-alcohol content below .08. It’s a disparity that safety advocates, state rangers and the Coast Guard say is just crazy.
“It is absolutely ludicrous to me to be a state that allows a higher alcoholic content for boating than driving,” said Andy M. Johnson, a outdoor enthusiast and safety trainer who championed failed legislation to limit boat operators to .08 this last legislative session. “First of all, boats don’t have brakes. And then the wind, the vibration, the sun and the noise all worsen the effects that the alcohol is going to have on body.”
A tragic accident on Lake Lanier on Monday, in which a fishing boat operated by an alleged drunk boater slammed into a pontoon filled with 13 people, has raised questions about how alcohol laws are enforced on the water. One person was killed in that collision, 9-year-old Jake Prince, one of nine children in the pontoon, and his 13-year-old brother is still missing.
Col. Eddie Henderson, who heads law enforcement for the state department of Natural Resources, said his agency has tried to get the state legislature for a decade to tighten up the Georgia law but have encountered stiff opposition. This year, the legislation — which was put forward by state Rep. Kevin Cooke, R-Carrollton — got further than any past bill, overwhelmingly passing in the House only to die in committee in the Senate.
“Politically, you have to navigate through things, but I do wish we could get that law changed,” he said. “”I would love to see our (blood-alcohol content) levels mirror what it is on the highway.”
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Budget cuts also have undercut DNR ranger patrols on Georgia waterways. Henderson said the agency has lost about 20 percent of its rangers — down to about 200 positions.
“Most weekends, we will have two or three boats patrolling on the lake,” he said, adding that the Hall and Forsyth counties sheriff’s departments also help with the lake patrols.
The numbers tell the story. Between 1999 and 2004, rangers routinely issued 55-77 boating-under-the-influence tickets a year. Since 2005, they’ve issued under 35 BUI tickets most years.
Meanwhile fatalities in boating accidents mostly have climbed: seven in 2011, four in 2010, zero in 2009, four in 2008, three in 2007, two in 2006 and zero in 2005. Between 1994 and 2004, in only two years did the lake have more than two fatalities involving boats, three in 1997 and eight in 1999, according to DNR records. These numbers don’t include drownings in incidents unrelated to boats, which have less of a trend in regards to cutbacks in rangers. For instance there were 11 in 1999 and 10 in 2011, eight in 2004 and 2007, five in 2002 and 2008. It was unclear how many of those incidents were linked to alcohol.
“Every weekend in the summer has multiple issues involving boating under the influence and hardly anything is being done about it,” Johnson said. “The Department of Natural Resources does the absolute best with what it is given … but the problem is so massive that the manpower at DNR cannot handle it.
“They don’t have the manpower they had in 2005.”
Authorities say Jake Prince of Buford was killed when a 21-foot fishing boat collided nearly head-on with a 28-foot pontoon boat about 10:30 p.m. on a moonless night. His 13-year-old brother remains missing. The fishing boat reportedly sped off and authorities later arrested Paul J. Bennett at Bald Ridge Marina in Cumming. Bennett, the 44-year-old owner of an upscale hair salon in Johns Creek, was booked with boating under the influence. He also may face homicide charges.
Authorities say the accident happened on the southern end of the lake about halfway between Buford Dam and Shoal Creek, just below the popular Lake Lanier Islands.
Henderson said that drinking and boating were intertwined in Georgia and that many boaters — trying to escape the work week — tended to shrug off safety concerns.
“That is the boating culture,” he said. “Our objective is to make sure everybody goes home.”
DUI Schools Atlanta Blogger’s Note:  Most people enjoy a few beers on the water.  But, as the events of last week show, tragedies can happen just as easily on the water as on the road.  Maybe we do need to lower the legal limit for boating.
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