Bill lowers legal blood-alcohol level for boaters

BY SARAH BULMER | APRIL 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Local boaters said they welcome the reduction of the blood-alcohol content level for operating a boat but said the legislation likely won’t change people’s behavior.

Gov. Terry Branstad signed legislation late last week that will lower the legal blood-alcohol content limit for motor and sailboats from .10 to .08 in order to align the law with the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle.

“It’s just like driving,” said Marion resident Gail Danninger, who has been boating for nearly 40 years. “You’ve got peoples’ lives at stake.”

In the state of Iowa, boaters aren’t required to obtain a license. Instructional courses are often recommended but not mandated.

“It’s too easy to get a boat,” said Danninger, who stood on the loading dock at the Coralville Reservoir at sunset on April 9. “You just have to register it and put it in the water, unlike a car or a motorcycle.”

But the line between driving a motorboat and driving a motor vehicle is beginning to blur, said Harry Munns, a former official with the American Sailing Association and a former Coast Guard captain.

“They’ve been working for years to create awareness of the fact that there really is very little difference in the consequences,” he said.

But alcohol is still popular in some areas of the Reservoir. People cluster in Party Cove to listen to music, swim, and drink with friends.

“There’s a lot of alcohol, and there are people of all ages — college students but also middle-age people — and everyone’s drinking,” said Micayla Lipcamon.

Lipcamon’s family owns a boat that sits at the marina dock in the summer, and she said the atmosphere of the cove is “wild.”

Rep. Curtis Hanson, D-Fairfield, said the blood-alcohol limit should have been lowered years ago, when the Iowa limit for operating a motor vehicle was lowered from .10 to .08 in 2003.

“It’s a standardization that’s long overdue,” he said.

Alcohol use was the No. 1 contributing factor in fatal boating accidents in 2007, according to the Coast Guard. In Iowa, there were 12 alcohol-related accidents and five alcohol-related deaths.

“There are too many drunk boaters on all the waterways,” said boater Susan Hauer. “The Reservoir gets really crazy in the summer.”

But many agree the legislation is unlikely to affect the attitudes and behaviors of boaters who drink while operating.

“I think the people that are going to abuse those limits are probably going to abuse them no matter what,” Munns said.

The legislation could prevent issues from happening before boaters reach a dangerous level of intoxication, he said.

Hanson said he hopes to see a growing awareness of the dangers of boating while drinking.

“I hope that we have an increased awareness and increased level of safety …” he said. “I think this is something the public should be concerned about.”

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