On a warm and humid June morning, local representatives, law enforcement officials and an array of press reporters converged on a float alongside the town dock to describe legislation designed to protect boaters, which was successfully passed in the New York State Legislature. Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman hosted the presentation. The keynote speakers who shepherded the legislation were Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli and State Senator John J. Flanagan. If Governor Pataki signs the legislation as anticipated, it will take effect after 30 days of his signature.
The main purpose of this important legislation is to equate the unfortunately increasingly common vice of Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) with its terrestrial counterpart, drunk driving. Currently, convictions of BWI yield gentler sentences than those of DWI; but this legislation aims to change that, rendering the offenses equally intolerable in the eyes of the law.
"Boating while intoxicated is as serious as driving while intoxicated and the penalties need to reflect that fact," commented Senator Flanagan. "This bill will give marine law enforcement and prosecutors the necessary tools to maintain an aggressive posture against BWI violators," said Assemblyman DiNapoli. Senator Flanagan and Assemblyman DiNapoli began their joint crusade toward bringing equivalence to the two crimes in 2003 when they united to successfully lower New York State's blood alcohol content standard for BWI from .10 to .08. Their latest achievement is sure to take another, even greater step in the direction of this goal.
"Too often people plan a day of boating which includes alcohol. Sadly, they don't stop to think that BWI has the same lethal potential as DWI," said Marge Lee, the president and co-founder of Drive Educated Drive Informed Commit and Totally End Drunk Driving (DEDICATEDD). Lee applauded Senator Flanagan and Assemblyman DiNapoli for sponsoring this legislation saying "We thank them for their determination and tenacity on this issue."
The legislation, much like legislation against drunk driving, aspires to inhibit the practice of intoxicated boating by means of stern punishment. Under current law, the penalty for the first conviction of BWI is jail time of up to 90 days, the fine within the range of $350 to $500; the new legislation will raise the possible jail time to one year and the fine to within $500 to $1,000. Subsequent convictions within 10 years can lead to fines up to $10,000 and jail sentences up to seven years. This legislation offers relative retribution to offenders of Boating While Ability Impaired (BWAI) as well, raising the fines of first-time lawbreakers from the maximum of $350 to $500. Repeated transgressions also render lengthier prison sentences.
Nassau County Police Officer Richard Korzenko has been assigned to the Marine Unit for over 20 years. Korzenko said he wished boaters took the same amount of time to bring their safety equipment on board as they do their fishing equipment, lunch and other personal items. He emphasized the most important aspect of boating is having the right safety equipment on board which has been checked to make certain it is functioning properly. Including one the most important things to have on board is a cell phone. Boaters needing police assistance can call 911 on their cell phones and the police have the ability to trace the call to the location of the incident. Police assistance is also available on the emergency channel # 16 frequency. Officer Korzenko said the most dangerous act for passengers on boats is 'bow riding.' A bow rider is one who either stands or sits on the bow of the boat; sitters often ride with their legs dangling over the side. He recalled one tragic incident several years ago when a youngster was bow riding, thrown in front of the boat and killed after leaving a waterfront restaurant. Nassau County Police Sergeant John Dalton supervises enforcement on Nassau County's waterways and welcomes this new legislation. Dalton recalled the incident last summer when a young man on Jet Skis was decapitated in a boating incident where alcohol played a role.
In his novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald called Manhasset Bay a 'courtesy bay,' which opened to 'the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.' Mallory Nathan is the veteran chief of the North Hempstead Bay Constables and is well aware of the hazards of boating in the often calm waters Fitzgerald describes. Nathan cautioned boaters that the affect of drinking alcoholic beverages is often 'magnified' by the sun, wind and water. He recalled the marine alcohol-related accidents of the past when boaters struck other boats, buoys and ran aground. Some became confused and lost their sense of direction. He advised boaters that the town's policy was one of zero tolerance and that the bay constables intend to enforce that policy.
Hopefully, this fruit of the work of Senator Flanagan and Assemblyman DiNapoli will deliver favorable results to a community well aware of the tragedy BWI can cause. Denna Cohen, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) on Long Island cautioned boaters saying, "Enjoy your boat and the summer and don't drink and boat or drive. Be the life of the party, not the death of it."
(Editor's note. Mr. Sean Manzione, interning as a reporter with Port News this summer and entering his senior year at Chaminade High School in Mineola, contributed to this article.)