Water, alcohol mix can be fatal - East Valley Tribune: News

Water, alcohol mix can be fatal

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Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004 6:51 am | Updated: 5:13 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

ROOSEVELT LAKE - The group in the pontoon boat on Roosevelt Lake was not happy.

Judging from the crossed arms, the hard stares and the hand gestures, the dozen or so scantily clad folks on the boat were not pleased their weekend party had been interrupted.

A short distance away, the 19-year-old operator of the pontoon sat in another boat, undergoing field sobriety tests.

Just as on our highways, alcohol remains a problem on our waterways, law enforcement officials say.

According to the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, six out of seven fatal accidents on Arizona’s lakes and rivers last year involved alcohol and the number of alcohol-related accidents rose from 11 in 1998 to 37 last year.

On Saturday, 25 members of Game and Fish and the Gila County Sheriff’s Office braved sporadic torrents of rain and choppy waters as part of a drunken boater checkpoint on Roosevelt Lake.

The pontoon boat just happened to be one of the few boats on the lake Saturday, so it was one of the few stopped at the checkpoint.

Ed Jahrke, a Game and Fish water craft training coordinator, wasn’t too concerned about upsetting boaters.

"People work hard all week so they came out here and enjoy the lake, and they invest a lot of money," Jahrke said.

"If we have someone who gets drunk and takes someone’s loved one away in an alcohol-related accident, well, that’s just not acceptable."

The operator of the pontoon boat was not under the influence of alcohol. Officers wrote one ticket — a 12-yearold on the boat wasn’t wearing a life jacket — and the group was sent on its way.

Rod Lucas, regional supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, said the agency plans one or two lake saturation checks every year, and the public is warned well in advance.

In addition, officials hold five to six "wolf packs" annually statewide. On any given day, on any given lake, four to five boats with Game and Fish officers and sheriff’s deputies will cover a lake looking for drunken boaters.

"We’re not out there just to apprehend people," Lucas said. "It’s to send a message. People comment they like to see us out there. They don’t know if we’ll be back next month or next weekend. It’s a deterrent."

In Maricopa County last year, there were 16 drownings, one fatal boat accident and three fatal cliff diving accidents on the eight waterways that are patrolled by the sheriff’s office.

"Alcohol is our No. 1 problem," said Sgt. Alan Rutherig. "Ninety-nine percent of our calls are alcohol-related. Alcohol affects everyone’s judgment and they do things that cause harm to themselves or others."

Rutherig, who has spent six of his eight years with the sheriff’s office as a lake patrol deputy, said many of those who find themselves in trouble are underage drinkers.

"Our area is so big and there are so few of us, we only get a small percentage," Rutherig said.

The most dangerous waterway in Arizona is the Colorado River, which racked up 42 accidents, four of which were fatal, last year. Lake Pleasant had 21 accidents, one of which was fatal, and Lake Havasu had 19 accidents and one death. Both Lake Mohave and Lake Mead recorded 11 accidents, with a single person dying on Lake Mohave.

Too many times, people’s judgment goes out the window when they drink, Rutherig said. He’s heard of people jumping off 120-foot cliffs or hanging off of a boat’s swimming platform and succumbing to carbon monoxide fumes and drowning.

There are a large number of people who can’t swim who end up getting drunk, find themselves in the water and drown while fully clothed, Rutherig said.

"I don’t think most of these people would take these risks if they weren’t drinking alcohol," Rutherig said.

In 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard saw a 5 percent increase in the number of alcohol-related boating fatalities nationwide. Nearly 290 people died that year in alcohol-related boating accidents — or almost 40 percent of everyone who died in a boatrelated incident.

Jim Carlin of Battle Creek, Mich., founded Boaters Against Drunk Driving in 1989.

People need to realize that it’s more difficult to operate a boat while drunk than a car, Carlin said.

"There’s something called ‘boater hypnosis’ and one has to be very, very careful when they’re operating a boat," he said.

The wind, the sun, the movement and noise of the boat, plus idyllic scenery can lead people into a false sense of security, he said.

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