The downtown Peoria riverfront was dotted with pleasure boats drifting along the Illinois River this Memorial Day weekend, which marks the unofficial beginning of boating season.
The downtown riverfront was dotted with pleasure boats drifting along the Illinois River this Memorial Day weekend, which marks the unofficial beginning of boating season.
With gas prices high, many boaters threw down their anchors and settled for a slow float in the sun with friends and a cooler of cold ones.
"It's kind of a double whammy," boating safety activist Roger Nelson says of drinking on the water on a nice day. "People get out their boats for the first time this year, stock up the coolers and head out into the harsh sun. Sometimes it doesn't hit them until it's too late."
Nelson, 53, of Bartonville is a part of the Illinois Valley Power Squadron, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of boating safety.
While Nelson agrees it is nice to cruise down the river with a couple of beers, "you just have to know when to say when."
Alcohol remains one of the biggest contributing factors in serious boating crashes, said Officer Jim Byron, a 23-year member of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police.
The agency is the main enforcer on the Illinois River, and Byron and his co-workers patrol the waters between Henry and Havana much of the summer, checking boats for safety equipment and also watching for impaired boaters who might be violating the "marine rules of the road."
"Obviously alcohol is the number one issue on the water," he said.
And while the boating crash involving ex-Peoria police officer Troy Parker may have more people thinking about the effects of alcohol on boaters, it likely won't be the end to reckless activity on the river, said Nelson.
Parker initially was charged with reckless homicide and operating under the influence after a June 2006 boat crash in which his passenger Damon Teverbaugh, 43, of Peoria was killed and another seriously injured after Parker's boat crashed into a moored barge. The charges were dropped last month after it was disputed whether Parker was driving the boat.
Unlike on the road, conservation officers need no probable cause to stop a boat. Most common violations include not having enough adequate-sized life jackets in the boat, but occasionally officers will find drivers who are operating under the influence.
Just as with driving a car, the legal blood alcohol level for operating a boat is 0.08 percent. However, boat operators and passengers of legal drinking age are allowed to have open containers of alcohol on board.
Boating is thought of more as recreation than a means of travel, Byron said. This leads to more drinking in an environment that is less forgiving to alcohol consumption.
In 2007, 13 people statewide died and 57 were injured in boating accidents. Alcohol use, along with inattention and carelessness of the driver, remains the major cause, according to a report by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Byron says penalties for operating a boat under the influence are similar to driving under the influence. Operating under the influence is a Class A Misdemeanor, and first offenders could be fined up to $2,500 or jailed for up to 364 days. They also could have watercraft operating privileges suspended for up to one year. Fines get more severe for repeat offenders.
Byron encourages all boaters to take boat safety classes, which are required by law for operators younger than 18 years old. The classes can be taken online at http://dnr.state.il.us, or people interested in taking classes in person can sign up by calling (800) 832-2599.
Erinn Deshinsky can be reached at (309) 686-3112 or firstname.lastname@example.org.