Wednesday, July 9, 2008

DNR steps up enforcement over holiday weekend

Boating accidents, alcohol arrests down slightly from last year, officials say

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
A boater puts in at Riley’s Lock over the Fourth of July weekend, a popular time for boaters on Maryland’s waterways.
While fireworks and barbecues are Fourth of July traditions, many county residents also enjoyed another popular activity over the long holiday weekend — boating.

A view of the fireworks from the water is often the best seat in the house, according to Walter Smith, a boat owner from Germantown.

‘‘It looks like [the fireworks] come right up off the water,” he said. Smith said he anchored on the Potomac near Poolesville with about 50 other people to watch the fireworks there from the river.

Fourth of July weekend, which falls in the middle of boating season, is extremely popular among boaters, said Sgt. Ken Turner, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Police, the enforcement arm of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

However, in an effort to drive home the importance of safety at a time when many may be having a good time on the water, NRP officers stepped up enforcement over the holiday weekend.

July has traditionally been a month in which boating accidents spike — most likely because of the sheer number of boaters on the waterways, Turner said. Over the Fourth of July weekend, alcohol can also be a factor.

‘‘It’s a great holiday. It’s a celebration that’s good for family and friends. ... But if you are going to consume alcohol, don’t operate your vehicle or your vessel,” Turner said. ‘‘We’re not against fun. We just want you to be safe.”

Operation Big Bang, as the enforcement initiative was dubbed, increased the presence of NRP officers on waterways and in state parks over the holiday weekend. Along with making sure drivers were operating their boats safely, officers also checked to make sure boaters were maintaining a proper lookout — in other words, watching where they were going — and had required safety equipment onboard, such as life vests, flares, and whistles, bells or horns.

Statewide, NRP investigated 14 boating accidents and arrested 12 people for operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol over the holiday weekend. The figures were down slightly from last year, but rising gas prices and unpredictable weather may also have had an effect on boat traffic, Turner said. Last year’s long weekend was also two days longer, which may skew comparisons, Turner said.

Washington has traditionally been a popular place for boaters to gather to watch the fireworks. However, after the fireworks are finished, a mass exodus of boats heading away from the display can lead to a dangerous situation, boaters say.

‘‘It gets so crowded — bumper to bumper,” said Diane Schwarz, a boat enthusiast from Bethesda, who has watched the fireworks from the water in Washington in years past. ‘‘It can be dangerous if you get irresponsible boaters who are out drinking and driving on the waterway and they shouldn’t be.”

Schwarz said that in past years she remained anchored until 2 a.m. before attempting to head back out in order to avoid the crowds.

Events, like fireworks, can cause a dangerous logjam among boaters after the display is over, Turner said. ‘‘They don’t all arrive at the same time, but they all want to leave at the same time,” Turner said.

Schwarz praised the NRP for the enforcement activities over the weekend. ‘‘I don’t want to be out on the water and have some imbecile running into me who’s drinking and having a good time,” she said.

Smith said he prefers anchoring in the county to fending off the crowds of boaters who gather in Washington for the fireworks display. ‘‘There’s plenty of river for everyone,” he said.