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“Hang on!” the police officer warned passengers as he gunned his new patrol boat on the Chain O’ Lakes.
The bow rose and white foam sprayed as the vessel surged, reaching 40 mph as it cut across the dark water. This was the maiden voyage of the season for a new 24-foot cruiser donated in part by a boating safety group called the YnoT Project.
The head of YnoT, Margaret Borcia, who was on board, later teared up as she realized the force of a collision at 40 mph — the speed of a motorboat that killed her 10-year-old son on those waters in 2012.
Tony Borcia had fallen off an inner tube while being towed by his father on Petite Lake when he was struck by a boat whose driver was drunk and had cocaine in his system, authorities said. Tony was killed instantly, and the horrific crash was witnessed not just by his father James but by Tony’s three siblings.
Largely as a result of Tony’s death, a set of new boating safety laws take effect this year and next. Starting this year, boaters must display an orange flag when towing skiers or tubers, and police may confiscate boats of people caught driving drunk multiple times.
Next year, a three-hour online boater safety course becomes mandatory for motorboat drivers born on or after Jan. 1, 1998. The new laws are the first steps toward safety advocates’ goal of changing what they characterize as the booze-soaked culture of boating in the area.
The Chain O’ Lakes, one of the busiest inland waterways in the country with about 23,000 registered boats, is also known informally as The Key West of the Midwest for its party atmosphere. Every summer, drinking revelers pack waterfront bars, form festive flotillas and hold drag races on the water. Because of that, many boaters say they won’t ski or tube on weekends, when they say it’s too crowded and dangerous.
“It seems boating is the last place where it is socially acceptable to drink and drive,” Margaret Borcia said. “You’d be appalled if you saw a man driving down the road with a beer in his hand, but it’s perfectly acceptable to do that on the water. We need to change that culture and reclaim our rivers and our lakes.”
Boating has its own set of rules that are very different than for driving a car. There generally are no seat belts, air bags, traffic lights or speed limits, and open alcohol is allowed. Children as young as 10 may drive a boat with a training certificate and an adult on board. Anyone 18 or over may drive a boat with no training and no license and in some cases, boaters concede, without the slightest idea of what they’re doing.
But advocates point out that boating is very different than driving a car. There is generally far less traffic, far more open space and lower speeds, with no-wake zones in tight spots, and a more relaxed feeling of camaraderie, leading to a far lower accident rate.
It seems boating is the last place where it is socially acceptable to drink and drive … We need to change that culture and reclaim our rivers and our lakes.
— Margaret Borcia, whose 10-year-old son was killed by a motorboat on the Chain O’Lakes in 2012
As a result, boaters have fought many of the changes, saying critics are trying to fix something that’s not broken. Tony Borcia’s death was highly unusual, said Rob Hardman, president of the Illinois Boaters Association, which formed in 2014 in response to proposed legislation the group’s website referred to as a part of a “war” on boating.
“This was a terrible tragedy, but this one tragedy should not determine how everyone else lives their lives,” Hardman said.
Statewide, the number of reported accidents generally has held steady or fallen in recent years, though last year saw a slight increase in accidents and deaths, with 20 fatalities. (By contrast, there were 924 traffic fatalities in Illinois last year, according to state records.) Citations overall and for operating a watercraft under the influence increased noticeably, due to greater enforcement, officials said.
Most water deaths were attributed to drownings, not collisions. In most cases, the driver had no formal boating safety instruction, and operator error was the most common cause of accidents.
In general, boating has gotten safer over the years, with far fewer drownings and children under 13 now required to wear life jackets. Nationally, the fatality rate for recreational boating accidents fell by 81 percent from 1973 to 2004, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The biggest factor in the decline in accidents in Illinois, boaters say, is simply the drop in the number of registered boats. State records show that has decreased steadily from a peak of nearly 400,000 in 1997 to 252,000 in 2014, attributed mainly to the recession and high gas prices. Boating business owners hope cheaper gas and better weather will get more people back on the water this year.
In response to stricter proposed laws, boaters generally oppose tying boating infractions to driver’s licenses — as another measure prompted by Tony’s death had sought to do — and successfully lobbied to lower the maximum age for mandatory boating safety education from 25 to 17, as originally proposed. That age will go up each year that the law is in effect.
Now, boaters are pushing back harder with their own proposal for a Boater’s Bill of Rights. It would forbid police from boarding a boat to search it unless there is reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing — similar to the law for motor vehicles.
As it stands, police may board watercraft at any time to conduct inspections for safety precautions like a life jacket for every passenger, proper lighting and an up-to-date fire extinguisher. Boaters say they often get harassed by such stops, sometimes after they have already passed previous inspections.
In Ohio, it’s been illegal since 2013 for local police to board and search a boat unless they have probable cause, or as part of a checkpoint, though the law does not apply to the U.S. Coast Guard or Department of Homeland Security.
The Illinois Boaters Association does support mandatory education for all drivers. While veteran boaters generally know the rules, said Hardman, the group’s director, renters or new owners may not. The group formed a political action committee, and successfully pushed for a requirement that boat renters must at least watch a safety video before taking to the water. The organization also recently held a clean up day on the Chain O’ Lakes and co-sponsored a boater safety course.
This summer, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will use its new cruiser to patrol the Chain. It’s a 24-foot Brunswick Impact 750 with sonar to help recover bodies or evidence, a bar to tow vehicles in trouble and twin, 150-horsepower engines that top out at 58 mph. It cost about $115,000, more than half of which was paid by YnoT.
Conservation Police Sgt. Rich Riedel, who was the lead investigator in the Tony Borcia crash, said the vessel would raise the police profile on the lake and hopefully prompt more careful boating. He urged boaters who are new to an area to ask their more experienced counterparts about where to go and what rules to follow. Boats on some lakes travel in a clockwise pattern, while on other lakes they go in a counter-clockwise route.
The legislation was sponsored by state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield who was Tony Borcia’s aunt, and whom the Illinois Boating Association has called “anti-boating.”
Morrison and Margaret Borcia denied that, saying they are not against boating or drinking, but are against drinking and driving, whether it’s a boat or a car. The driver who killed Tony, David Hatyina, pleaded guilty to aggravated DUI and is serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Margaret Borcia and YnoT have also filed suit against the Fox Waterway Agency to try to get it to establish swim areas and new limits on the size and speed of boats on the Chain. The suit was dismissed but the ruling is being appealed.
“We want everybody to be able to use the waterways safely,” Morrison said. “Or if you want to get really drunk on a boat, let somebody else drive.”
Sgt. James McKinney of Lake County Sheriff’s police said veteran boaters welcome the new required training for new young drivers.
“Boating is one of the only things where you can buy a boat and put it on the water without any knowledge,” McKinney said. “We find the general public is unaware of the rules or what equipment they’re supposed to have. That’s where the boater safety law is going to see the most benefit.”
Copyright © 2016, Lake County News-Sun
Crime Drunk Driving