Ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, a busy time on the water, law enforcement agencies in Vermont discussed a new approach they have to handling suspected cases of drunk boating.
Vermont State Police and partners like game wardens and Colchester Police are now using a seated version of those familiar roadside sobriety checks. The evolved version can be conducted in a boat on the water.
A boater an officer thinks may be impaired will be asked to complete a series of tasks that clue investigators into how well their nervous system is functioning — without having to bring that suspect to shore, as police here used to have to do.
Bringing a person to shore for examination was time-consuming and presented logistical problems, Vermont State Police said.
The on-water exams have been in use elsewhere for as long as a decade, but not by VSP until now.
"Frankly, this has been a blind spot of ours," said Sgt. Jay Riggen of the Vermont State Police, who trains other troopers in detecting cases of boating while intoxicated. "In Vermont, the recreational boating season is so short that I don't think it had the attention from us that it really needed. And we're making that change effective immediately."
Riggen acknowledged the new checks can't prevent all emergencies, but said if more people take the issue seriously, then the water will be safer for everyone.
Drunk boating has had tragic consequences on Lake Champlain in the past.
On July 4, 2002, 4-year-old Trevor Mack and his 9-year-old sister, Melissa, were trapped underwater when the boat the Charlotte children were riding on capsized.
The skipper, George "Dean" Martin, was convicted of boating while intoxicated with death resulting.
"I just never should have gone out and taken any children on the boat after having anything to drink," Martin admitted at a court hearing in March 2008.
The U.S. Coast Guard has already been using the evolved method of identifying BWI cases, which can end with a towed boat and an arrest.
"Treat vessels like they're a car," advised Petty Officer Second Class Chase Focht, of U.S. Coast Guard Station Burlington. "We're not out to get anyone in trouble, we're just out to make sure everyone's safe and having a good time on the water."
Riggen noted a boater mustn't get a perfect score on the test to be cleared of suspicion of improper operation, because the tests are designed to give some leeway for nervousness or other factors.
While the BWI investigative techniques are new to Lake Champlain, the familiar safety pleas from law enforcement aren't changing.
The safety guidance includes having enough flotation vests on board for all passengers; telling someone where you're going to be and when; having a cell phone or radio on you; maintaining a well-lit boat for nighttime use; and if you have alcohol on the boat, designate a sober operator.
Boater Fred Clements said he has all his safety gear stocked, and he is psyched to watch the Fourth of July fireworks show over Malletts Bay from his boat.
"I've been watching it from this marina for 30 years and it's always great," Clements said. "Looking forward to it!"