The risks of drunken boating

Over the years, we have often disagreed with Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. on numerous matters of law and social justice. But it gives us no satisfaction to learn of the Anne Arundel Republican's involvement in a horrific boating accident Wednesday on the Magothy River. The accident caused serious injury to six people, including Mr. Dwyer, another adult and four children.

Mr. Dwyer had been drinking and operating one of the vessels, the "Baja," a 26-foot runabout that collided with an 18.5-foot Bayliner and sank near Cornfield Creek. He admitted to his actions at a brief news conference upon his release from a hospital the following day and even raised the possibility that his blood alcohol level was .20, more than twice the legal limit.

Natural Resources Police have filed no charges in the incident and investigators are unlikely to do so until they have completed their work; that might take a month or more. No doubt a defense attorney would have advised Mr. Dwyer against making his public admission, but we have to offer a grudging respect to a politician willing to take the heat for potentially criminal behavior.

And make no mistake, drinking and operating a boat is a crime that ought to be regarded as equivalent to drunken driving on dry land. Mr. Dwyer was fortunate that no one was killed in the accident. Many others involved in drunken boating accidents are not so fortunate.

Last year was a disastrous one for boating fatalities in this state. Maryland recorded 24 deaths, roughly twice the state's 10-year average. Many factors are involved in boating accidents — from driver distraction to speeding and failure to keep a lookout — but drunken boating is most closely associated with fatal accidents on the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.

According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, alcohol use is the top contributing factor in boating deaths nationwide and the primary cause in 16 percent of such cases. Maryland's experience is even worse: It was cited as the cause of six of last year's two dozen fatalities.

DNR Police regularly issue citations to boat operators found to be intoxicated, and not just in the case of accidents. But those arrests (100-200 each year) seem to have had little effect on the number of boating accidents — which average, rather stubbornly, around 200 per year.

Drunken boating (or, more precisely, operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs) is a misdemeanor that is subject to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense, but jail time is rarely the result of such prosecutions, according to police. Unlike drunken driving, a potential felony, one is not going to receive points on a Maryland driver's license or lose that license altogether as a result of drunken boating.

Are current laws and penalties a sufficient deterrent? That's a subject worth exploring. Clearly, Mr. Dwyer was aware of the law, as he serves on the House Judiciary Committee. He has long been a vocal supporter of tougher criminal laws, including those related to drunken driving. Earlier this year, he co-sponsored a bill to require those convicted of drunken driving with a minor passenger in the vehicle be required to install an ignition interlock device that would force the driver to essentially pass a Breathalyzer test before starting the car in the future. As his own website notes, he is "sick of the bleeding heart liberals that want to protect criminals."

We understand the temptation to consume alcohol while boating, particularly on a warm summer's evening when out on the water with friends. But the prudent course is to drink moderately and for the helmsman not to drink at all. That's the long-standing recommendation of the National Safe Boating Council. The risk is simply too great.

Perhaps Mr. Dwyer's high-profile accident will serve as a warning in the waning days of the summer boating season for everyone to act responsibly. The delegate might amplify that message by resigning from elected office if, as he apparently expects, his blood-alcohol level is found to have been above the legal limit.

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