Benton, Franklin counties to have extra patrols to keep boaters safe

By Tyler Richardson Tri-City HeraldJuly 3, 2014 

Boaters clamoring to local rivers to enjoy the hot weather and fireworks displays this Independence Day weekend can expect to share the water with local authorities.

The sheriff's offices in Benton and Franklin counties will have boats on the Columbia and Snake rivers making sure boaters are following regulations.

Authorities are hopeful the three-day holiday will go as smoothly as last weekend, when extra patrols were out to crack down on drinking and boating, said Deputy Mark Boyer with the Franklin County Sheriff's Office.

"I believe the message got out and the boating public wants to have a safe season," he said. "We ran into a lot of safe boaters. It was pretty nice and refreshing."

Franklin County will have its yellow jet boat out patrolling the Columbia and lower end of the Snake. Benton County will be patrolling the Columbia around the Tri-Cities.

The U.S. Coast Guard also will have boats out on the water helping with patrols, said Deputy Tom Morton of the Benton County Sheriff's Office. Morton said boaters should expect random inspections.

Authorities are expecting a large crowd on the Columbia for the fireworks display, which starts at 10 p.m. and lasts about 45 minutes. Boyer said the Franklin County boat will stay on the water longer than previous years to make sure everyone gets off the river safely.

Morton expects authorities to be on the water until after midnight.

"Once the fireworks show is over, there are always disabled boats we have to end up towing," he said.

Deputies will be cracking down on impaired driving and checking that anyone operating a boat is carrying a mandatory boater education card. The card proves a driver has passed a state safety class.

"We are enforcing a zero tolerance for drivers without a boater education card," Boyer said.

Authorities said their biggest worry on the water is intoxicated boaters putting themselves in danger.

Alcohol was the leading factor in fatal boating crashes in the United States last year, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. There were 4,062 accidents in 2013 which resulted in 560 deaths and 2,600 injuries.

There were 94 boating accidents in Washington last year, resulting in the deaths of 17 people, according to the Coast Guard. There were also 51 reported injuries and the crashes caused estimated damages of more than $983,800.

Boating while intoxicated carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. As it is on the roads, the legal limit to get behind the wheel on the water is a blood alcohol content of less than .08.

"We want to make sure people are having a good time but not endangering themselves or others in the process," Morton said.

Authorities also will check vessels to ensure everyone on board has life jackets, drivers aren't acting recklessly, passengers are riding safely, there is no overcrowding and boats have required safety equipment.

Boyer stressed that boaters should make sure their navigation lights are working, especially if they plan to be on the water after sunset, and check to make sure they have proper boat flares.

Morton asked everyone planning on getting on boats to make sure they wear a life vests, even though they can be uncomfortable at times, he said.

Of the people who drowned last year in boating accidents, 84 percent were not wearing life vests, according to the Coast Guard.

"Life vests safe lives," Morton said.

Anyone with questions about boating safety or regulations can call the sheriff's offices in Franklin County at 509-545-3501 and Benton County at 509-735-6555.

-- Tyler Richardson: 509-582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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