DES MOINES | Fewer recreational boaters in Iowa are getting injured on the water or being arrested for boating while intoxicated than in recent years, state data shows.
Yet there is no clear reason for the lower numbers, law enforcement officials say.
Personal injuries related to boating accidents are down 70 percent since 2010, according to data provided by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which enforces boating laws on the state’s rivers and lakes.
Boating-while-intoxicated arrests have dropped 64 percent in just two years, statistics show.
The BWI numbers spiked in 2012, the first full year after the state reduced the legal blood-alcohol level for boaters from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent to match the state’s operating-while-intoxicated law. There were 97 BWI arrests in 2012, which was nearly double the previous year, according to DNR data.
That figure dropped to 56 arrests in 2013 and just 35 as of Tuesday, with 3 1/2 months of the year to go.
There were 46 personal injuries related to boating incidents reported in 2010, according to the DNR. That number dropped quickly to 20 in 2011 and has inched down since then. As of Tuesday, just 14 such incidents were reported to the DNR.
The number of boating fatalities, boating incidents resulting in property damage and total boating incidents have been largely static since 2010, the DNR data shows.
A Jackson, Neb., man was ordered to serve two years in prison and pay $150,000 in restitution after a 2009 boating accident on the Missouri River that killed a South Sioux City man and injured another. Authorities said Samuel Gomez's blood-alcohol level was 0.168 percent. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to operating a boat while intoxicated causing death.
Kevin Baskins, a DNR communications official, said multiple factors could be influencing the decline in BWI and injury numbers.
While the 2012 spike in boating-while-intoxicated arrests likely can be attributed to the new law, Baskins said the reductions since likely are due to heightened awareness of the law.
“With the BWI law, we probably have a lot more operators that are conscious of the fact that (law) is there and they need to be more conscientious about how much (alcohol) they may be consuming on the water,” Baskins said.
Jason Sandholdt, a former DNR official who is now the sheriff of Marion County, home of Iowa’s largest lake, Lake Red Rock, said the spike and then reduction in BWI arrests may be less about a change in boaters’ behavior and more a product of DNR officers’ focus.
“I still think there are people who consume (alcohol) and operate under the influence,” Sandholt said. “The detection and the processing of those people, and recognizing it, is probably a large factor.
"My personal belief on it is those numbers, the increase and the jump, are due to officer training. When we would have labs for the (DNR) conservation officers where they practice field sobriety testing and doing processing of drunk boaters, our (arrest) numbers would increase.”
Baskins said the weather can be another factor in boater behavior and could have influenced the injury and BWI figures.
He said earlier this year there were parts of the Mississippi River and some lakes on which the DNR recommended boaters exercise caution due to flooding. “That probably cut down on some traffic, some participation.
“If you get a cold year or an unseasonably rainy year, that will keep traffic down. If you get a lot of hot weather, dry weather, you have more traffic and more potential for collisions or incidents on the water.”
There have been between three and five boating deaths each year in the past five years, with the exception of 2012, when there were 10. That year included one incident in which four boaters died in an accident on the Mississippi River near Burlington.