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Conservation officer Angie Warren talks with boaters as she checks to see if they meet the regulations for life vests, fire extinguisher and if there is any alcohol usage by the driver as she patrols Friday, July 4, 2014, at Detroit Lakes. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Drunken boating arrests drop in Minnesota

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DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – As boaters enjoyed Detroit Lake on a windy Independence Day, conservation officer Angie Warren scanned the white-capped water with an eye for safety.

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Now and then, she signaled for a craft to stop, and over the splash of waves, she launched into a series of questions. Are there enough lifejackets on board? A fire extinguisher? A throwable life preserver?

And the kicker: “Are we having any adult beverages today?”

This last question, often met with smiles and hoisted beer cans, is mainly aimed at the skipper because in Minnesota, as in North Dakota and other states, operating a boat while drunk is illegal.

As of Thursday, 18 people had been arrested for boating while intoxicated in Minnesota this year – down from 25 at the same time last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In all of 2013, 89 people were arrested for BWI. That’s a 43 percent drop from 2012, which saw 158 arrests, the DNR said.

Capt. Greg Salo wishes he could say these falling numbers mean that the public is taking to heart the DNR’s campaign to curtail drunken boating, but he can’t prove that. Instead, the department attributes the declines to the rain and cold of the early 2013 boating season and

to poor weather conditions so far this year, which have kept boats off the water, said Salo, who manages DNR enforcement in central Minnesota.

“I would like to think that people are getting the message” about drunken boating, he said. “I just don’t have the stats to give you a confident yes.”

Salo said the DNR’s BWI enforcement efforts have not changed much in the past few years and that the department continues to take a zero-tolerance stance on drinking and boating, a combination that can sometimes be fatal.

Alcohol use was a factor in 33 percent of Minnesota’s deadly boating accidents in 2012 and 8 percent in 2013. This year, one of the state’s four boating fatalities was alcohol-related, the DNR said.

Nationally, alcohol use has been the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents for the past two years. It was the primary factor in 16 percent of deaths in 2013 and 17 percent of deaths in 2012, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Salo said the public often views drunken boating as safer than drunken driving, which by his estimate is a myth.

“People are under the assumption because they’re out on a lake, it’s wide open, there’s not a lot of hazards. When in fact, it’s actually probably worse,” he said. “On the busy holiday weekends, the lakes are crowded. There is no lane of traffic to guide and direct other boats.”

In Minnesota, it’s illegal for a person to drive a boat with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent or higher. In North Dakota, the limit is 0.10 percent. In both states, people arrested for drunken boating can lose their boating privileges and face fines, much like a

drunk driver caught behind the wheel of a car.

The prohibition on intoxication does not apply to boat passengers, who can legally imbibe alcoholic drinks on the waters of Minnesota and North Dakota.

“If you’re going to drink in the boat, have a designated operator,” said Robert Timian, North Dakota’s chief game warden. “We want people to have fun, but we want them to have fun safely.”

While he didn’t have exact figures, Timian said the number of drunken boating arrests in North Dakota this year is in the single digits. In recent years, the state has had fewer than 20 drunken boating arrests each year, he said.

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