Summer is unofficially underway and boaters will be taking to the water in droves in Eastern North Carolina — but they need to be careful.
According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard, North Carolina ranks 10th nationally in boating fatalities.
During the Fourth of July weekend last summer, an allegedly impaired boater killed teenager Sheyenne Marshall in Lake Norman, prompting lawmakers to consider more stringent punishments for deaths or injuries caused by impaired boaters.
A bill, nicknamed Sheyenne’s Law, passed the N.C. House of Representatives unanimously on May 12 and is under consideration by the Senate.
Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican co-sponsored the bill.
“I read through the bill and I thought it was a good idea,” he said. “In order for a bill like this to be heard in a short session, it had to be a committee recommendation.”
Bell chairs the Wildlife Resources Oversight Committee prompting the primary bill sponsor, Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, and Rep. John Fraley, R-Iredell, to bring it to Bell. The two representatives worked with Marshall’s family in shaping the bill.
“It’s about safety,” Bell said. “Anytime you’re out on the water, especially during the holiday season, the summer season, you have a lot of people out on the water and you have families. This was an incident where you had people out enjoying the water, enjoying boating and having a good time, and somebody that was reckless and decided to boat under the influence ended up killing someone.”
The law doesn’t increase regulations or restrictions on boaters, but it does increase the penalty for impaired boating resulting in death or serious injury, bringing it more in line with punishment that drivers on the road would receive for similar offenses. Currently, such an offense on the water would be classified as a misdemeanor, but the bill would create a felony charge that could be punishable by up to eight years in prison.
Alex Stark, a Pink Hill lawyer who grew up spending time on the water in New Bern, said he has no problem with the proposed law.
“If you recklessly kill someone, it should be charged at a higher rate,” he said.
The bill is currently in committee in the state Senate. If it makes it through unchanged, it will go on to be signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.
While lawmakers consider potential changes to state law, officers are working to enforce North Carolina’s current boating laws.
Lt. Sam Craft, public information officer for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said the commission would be working in conjunction with N.C. law enforcement this weekend to keep people safe on the water and on the roadways.
“If there’s one person on the water, anywhere in the state, that is operating a vessel, or a vehicle for that matter, and is impaired, it is too big of a problem,” Craft said.
Being on the water adds stressors that increase a person’s susceptibility to the influence of alcohol, he said.
“You’ve got the sun beating down on you, the rocking of the boat and just being in those elements you become impaired a lot more quickly on the water than you would on the land,” Craft said. “If a person’s normal limit would be four beers, when they get on the water their limit could be two beers, essentially half as much to become impaired on the water as it would be on the land.”