Boating fatalities up sharply this year

Harrisburg — This hasn’t been a safe year on the water, at least in Pennsylvania and perhaps nationally.

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission recorded 11 fatalities resulting from boating accidents in 2012. That was 11 fewer than the year before and two below the new 10-year average.

There were nine fatalities statewide as of July 6 in 2013, putting things well ahead of last year.

“Last year we saw a record-low number of fatalities, but they’ve been back up this year,” said Laurel Anders, director of the commission’s Bureau of Boating and Outreach.

An unusually high number of this year’s fatalities seem to have been attributable, at least in part, to high water resulting from all of this year’s rain, she added.

Commission accident reports show that a 57-year-old man died when his motorboat capsized in strong currents on the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County in April.

A 70-year-old man died when the canoe he was sharing with three other people capsized in high, swift waters on the Delaware River in Northampton County, while a 29-year-old man died in heavy rapids on the Lackawaxen River in Pike County, and a 53-year-old man is missing and presumed dead after launching a canoe in high waters on the Lehigh River in Lehigh County. All of those fatalities occurred in June.

Not wearing a personal floatation device, or life jacket, proved fatal for most victims, too.

Of the nine people to have perished in boating accidents this year, only two were wearing life jackets, and one of those – who drowned while white-water rafting on the Yough River near Ohiopyle – had it come off under water.

Some of the victims at least had life jackets on board their vessels; others did not.

That’s a continuing problem. According to information provided by the commission, lack of proper life jackets annually ranks as the second most common violation officers encounter when checking boaters on the water.

In 2012, for example, officers issued 1,623 citations for people fishing without a license. That was the No. 1 violation seen.

Lack of personal floatation devices was a close second, though, with 1,126 citations issued. Littering was the third most common problem, with 453 citations issued.

Alcohol did not appear to be a factor in any of that year’s fatalities, according to commission accident data. Officers here and across the country have been on the lookout for drunk boaters this year, however.

The commission routinely patrols rivers and lakes looking for people guilty of boating under the influence, or BUI. The cutoff point for that is a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent, just as is the case with driving under the influence in a vehicle.

This year, for the first time, the commission participated in Operation Dry Water, a nationwide effort to stamp out BUI. It’s organized by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Across the country, with 65 percent of participating agencies reporting, nearly 5,100 law enforcement officers checked about 56,000 vessels and talked with roughly 132,000 boaters. That led to 10,917 safety warnings, 4,740 citations and 279 BUI arrests, according to the association.

And just how drunk were some boaters? The highest blood-alcohol content found was 0.024 percent – three times the legal limit – in boaters in Kansas, California and Texas.

Rain across much of the state on the weekend of June 28 to 30, when Operation Dry Water detail was carried out in Pennsylvania, limited boat traffic and correspondingly limited the contact officers had with boaters, said the commission’s chief law enforcement officer, Corey Brichter.

But officers did manage to check 689 boats. They issued 142 citations of various kinds and made five BUI arrests, he said.

Overall, the commission had made 46 BUI arrests as of July 15, with 22 of those coming from the southcentral region. That was tops in the state.

Most of those arrests are attributable to patrols done on Raystown Lake and, in what is different this year, the Susquehanna River, he said.

The southwest and northeast regions had accounted for seven BUI arrests each as of July 15, the southeast, five, the northwest, four and the northcentral, one.

The 46 arrests total are an unusually high number for that point in the year, Brichter said.

“That’s not a good statistic,” Brichter said. “That’s way above where we usually are. We usually get 60 for the whole [boating] season.”

He said that could be a result of better and more effective training and enforcement on the part of waterways conservation officers. It could be, too, that people are just doing too much drinking and boating.

That’s why the commission participated in Operation Dry Water for the first time this year, and why it will participate again in the future.

The hope is that officers will keep people from getting hurt on the water, or even on the drive home.

“We try to get people who have been drinking on their boats before they get in their vehicle to go home. Because if they’re still drunk enough to qualify for a DUI, and they’re trailering a boat, they’re impaired with a 3,000-pound missile behind them,” Brichter said.

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