Boating enforcement officers with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission are working to keep the waters safe, and want to remind everyone to practice safe boating habits and social distancing recommendations during the Independence Day holiday.

They will be ramping up enforcement efforts the July 4th weekend as part of the national Operation Dry Water campaign to reduce instances of boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to a news release.

“This year we’ve already seen a huge increase in people enjoying our state’s waters,” said Capt. Stephanie Weatherington, AGFC boating law administrator. “But many of these newcomers may be unfamiliar with some of the dangers of boating under the influence.”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Statistics from 2019, alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. Boating while intoxicated can be even more dangerous than driving a car while intoxicated, as most boaters have less experience operating a boat than they do operating a car. Boats don’t have brakes, and slower responses to a sudden danger can be the difference between life and death.

Weatherington said the effects of alcohol also are magnified by the conditions boating creates.

“The sun, heat, wind and motion all intensify alcohol’s impact on a person,” Weatherington said. “Someone who could enjoy a beer or two in the air conditioning at home or in a restaurant and not feel any effects may become impaired by the same amount of alcohol on board a boat in the summer sun.”

The effects are so great that Arkansas lawmakers agreed that a conviction of boating under the influence of drugs or alcohol should carry the same weight as if someone was caught driving a land vehicle under the influence. If someone is found guilty, they can have their driving privileges suspended for up to 6 months, be charged up to $1,000 and serve up to a year of jail time, according to the release.

“It’s a stiff penalty that can really impact your life, but it’s that important,” Weatherington said. “The effects of a boating accident are no less real than those of a car accident.”

The added impact of alcohol can be a danger to passengers as well as drivers, she said. Although not illegal, passengers who consume too much alcohol also can make poor judgments that can lead to injuries and death.

“We want people to go out and have a good time on the water, but we also want them to use good judgment,” Weatherington said. “Holiday weekends can be very crowded, and there may be a lot of people out there that aren’t extremely experienced at piloting a boat. More so this year than ever.”

Maj. Glenn Tucker, assistant chief of the AGFC Enforcement Division, said that crowds and gatherings should probably be avoided this year because of COVID-19 concerns.

“I get it, the holidays mean getting out and enjoying time with friends, but we still need to practice social distancing, even when we’re outdoors,” Tucker said. “We’ve all seen videos and images from large on-the-water gatherings, and we’ve also seen some unfortunate cases where the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was able to spread quickly as a result. It’s not illegal in Arkansas to gather like this, but we want to remind people to please think about the consequences of their actions. It shouldn’t take a law to practice good judgment.”