VT & NY Tighten-up BWI Enforcement

by Chris Costigan

Boaters planning to kick back amongst the waves with an alcoholic beverage in hand should do so using discretion. This should be obvious to on-lake boaters navigating Lake Champlain. However, not knowing that a boating while intoxicated (BWI) law exists won’t save you from the long arm of the law.

Serving as an aquatic spin off of the already established road rules, the phrase driving while intoxicated has been manipulated to incorporate water. (BWI) is the apparent offspring and its wrath is just as serious, if not identical to its older sibling. Keeping in step with the recent trend towards cracking down on drinking while driving, New York and Vermont State Marine Units have been teaming up with the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce the reduction of the legal blood alcohol content from .1 to .08. New York paved the way for this reduction and Vermont was quick to follow suit.

“Up until recently there have been two standards,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer John Jackson explains. “New York enforces a .08 limit and Vermont enforced a .10. We used to prosecute for the lower limit, but now the entire lake is at the .08 blood alcohol limit.”

The limit in Vermont is even less for those operating a boat under the legal drinking age. Those under 21 commit a civil traffic violation when his or her alcohol level is 0.02 or higher. For a first violation, the individual’s privilege to man the helm of a vessel, except for canoes, rowboats, or any such boat that doesn’t require mechanical propulsion, will be suspended for six months. If the minor should commit the same act or perform a subsequent violation, he or she will lose the privilege to operate a motorized boat for the duration of one year or until he or she ripens to the age of 21—whichever is longer.

Those individuals, 21 and older, face consequences compatible to that corresponding state’s DWI laws. Repercussions for such illegal acts include fines, and or suspension of boating privileges. It becomes Federal when the Coast Guard becomes involved. In this case, the intoxicated boater faces up to 90 days imprisonment and up to $750 in fines. Penalties increase with each subsequent violation.

Procedures used in determining an alleged BWI for lake goers are the same for determining DWI. However, the nature of water in motion makes it virtually impossible to conduct some of the field tests afloat. Counting 1 through 25 backwards, reciting of the ABCs and following a pen 12 inches from your nose with your eyes and the standard breathalyzer are tests that can be conducted mid-lake. If an individual should fail these field tests, he or she is taken to shore and further “dry land” tests are conducted. These tests include walking the traditional yellow line, leaning back and touching one’s nose, standing on one leg and anything else that requires solid ground.

For those individuals gearing up for a nice day under the sun of Lake Champlain, beware of the laws. Reckless indulgence is not tolerated on the highways and is met with the same potent rancor on the water.