State officials team up to target drunk drivers, boaters during holidays

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 1, 2013 

Citizens preparing for Independence Day celebrations might want to include a designated boater in their plans.

Officials from The Governor's Office of Highway Safety, Department of Public Safety and the Department of Natural Resources announced during a Monday morning press conference that law enforcement will not only increase their patrols in search of drunk drivers during the holidays, but will monitor the waters as well.

"The majority of Georgians trailer their boats to our lakes and to their favorite boating destination," said Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor's Office for Highway Safety. "It's important that we ensure the our boaters don't endanger the boating public but also that we prevent them from getting behind the wheel of a vehicle."

In the past, boaters could operate their watercraft with a blood alcohol content of 0.1. Now, the blood alcohol content guidelines are the same for motorists and boaters alike.

"This is the first year that we'll have a full summer where the limit on land and water is the same: 0.08," Blackwood said. "We know that getting a drunk boater off the water is getting a drunk driver off the road early. The preliminary numbers on major lakes are showing that people are getting that message."

The new guidelines will apply to all watercraft. Open container laws do not presently when determining if a boater is in violation. However, state officials recommend boaters make sure all safety requirements are present and that a person be designated to operate the boat if drinking is part of celebratory plans.

Officials said the changes have come about as an effort to decrease alcohol-related fatalities and accidents across the state. Blackwood said three people die per day in Georgia due to vehicular accidents. This includes DUIs and non-DUIs. He also said that Georgia has the fifth highest traffic fatality count in the nation. During holiday weeks, especially Independence Day and Thanksgiving, fatalities increase significantly.

"This is traditionally one of the most deadly weeks of the year," Blackwood said. "We want to change that."

Although roadway fatalities are still high in Georgia, the average has been steadily declining for the past seven years from 1700 to 1200, Blackwood said.

Department of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Division Director Col. Eddie Henderson said that alcohol contributed to 8 percent of boating accidents. Alcohol was a factor in 17 percent of boating fatalities. So far this year, 86 people have been arrested and charged with boating under the influence.

"Drinking affects the skills necessary to operate a boat," Henderson said. "We want everyone to enjoy their time on the water this weekend. Make sure an accident or an arrest doesn't spoil your fun. Remember to boat safely and boat sober."

Georgia State Patrol and other law enforcement agencies will also be increasing the number of officers on the road this week. Representatives said drivers could expect increased visibility and sobriety checkpoints at random locations across the state. These checkpoints will not necessarily all be in high population areas, as rural citizens are just as likely to run into intoxicated drivers.

"A lot of our fatalities occur on rural or local roadways," said Mark McDonough, commissioner for the Department of Public Safety. "So, here in Muscogee County or Harris County, the smaller counties with rural roadways, you're as likely to run into a driver who's under the influence as you are in downtown Atlanta."

In fact, McDonough said during any given weekend 1 in 10 drivers are estimated to be under the influence of either drugs or alcohol.

"If you and your family are going to the lake, or you're going to a picnic or you're going to church, statistically one of the drivers of the ten cars that pass you are under the influence," McDonough said. "It's important for us to remove those motorists from the roadway for their safety, but more importantly for the safety of the law-abiding driving public."

Blackwood warned motorists to remember the effects of DUI can have long lasting consequences that can go beyond a night in jail. Besides injuring themselves or others, impaired motorists can also face hefty costs to finances and employment.

"These are serious offenses," Blackwood said. "A DUI in Georgia can cost you $10,000. That's in fines, that's in insurance, that's in legal fees, and it could even cost you your job."

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