Legislation that would lower the minimum blood-alcohol limit at which a person operating a watercraft is legally considered intoxicated was recently introduced to the state House of Representatives.
The current blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit for individuals operating a watercraft is set at 0.10 percent. House Bill (HB) 4072, introduced by state Rep. Matt Lori (R-Constantine), seeks to lower that threshold to 0.08 percent, which would make it equivalent to the drunk driving threshold for operating an automobile.
Blood-alcohol content is typically measured in grams per 100 milliliters of blood.
Similar legislation has been proposed several times in previous legislative sessions.
The bill was initially proposed in direct response to the death of a 7-year-old boy on Donnell Lake in Cass County. The child was tubing when he was run down by a personal watercraft. The driver of the personal watercraft was found to have a BAC of between 0.08 and 0.09 percent when tested by police.
Because he was under the legal 0.10 percent limit, the personal watercraft operator pleaded guilty to negligent homicide — an offense punishable by up to two years in prison. If the law at the time resembled that which is currently in place for automobiles, the man would have a faced a felony for operating while intoxicated and causing death, which carries a penalty of 15 years in prison.
In 2007, a similar legislative proposal received the support of the Michigan State Police, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, the Michigan Sheriff’s Association, the Michigan Boating Industries Association, and the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Those opposing the bills included the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Lori decided to introduce the bill again in 2009. However, Lori’s chief of staff, Susan Martin, said that “with the focus during the previous leadership being on the budget and fiscal issues, policy matters took a back seat.” Therefore, Lori has reintroduced the proposed change.
Although she said she still needs to thoroughly read the bill, state Rep. Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake, Highland) said she believes that a watercraft is “just as deadly as a car.” Therefore, the standards that apply to driving a road vehicle should be the same when piloting a watercraft.
She added, “I’m concerned about safety on the water, as well as the roads.”
State Rep. Chuck Moss (R-Orchard Lake) said he would like to see demonstrated evidence that drunk boating incidents have increased before legislators make the law harsher for everybody.
“Before I sign on to anything, I want to make sure that the laws we have aren’t working in general,” he said. “If we are seeing lots of people getting hurt and killed, then maybe we should change the law to make it more strict. But if it’s just one bad incident, then we need to find what in the system failed rather than making stricter laws on everyone.”
The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, where it awaits a hearing.