Confusion on alcohol at sea

New proposals on breath tests at sea need further clarification

Wednesday March 21st 2001, Author: Peter Bentley, Location: United Kingdom
The government has recently revealed its intention to introduce alcohol and drug tests for commercial and recreational mariners. Police would be given new powers to enforce the policy. If introduced, such a policy would have wide-ranging repercussions for all kinds of recreational boating.
According to Shipping Minister, Keith Hill: "The Queen¹s Speech on 6 December outlined the government's intention to draft a Safety Bill. We will use this opportunity to introduce a prescribed blood/alcohol limit for professional and recreational mariners with accompanying powers for the police to test suspects."

Hill went on: "We propose to set a 80 milligram per 100 millilitre blood/alcohol limit for mariners of all types of civil waterborne transport in UK waters, including non-UK vessels. It will be illegal for mariners, on duty, on board any commercial vessel or fishing vessel to be above the limit or to be unfit to fulfil their duties due to being intoxicated through drink. In the interest of passenger safety on passenger vessels or ferries, the limit will apply to off-duty crew having a safety-critical function in the event of an emergency. Those involved in the navigation or propulsion of recreational craft while in motion and not moored will also be included."

While powers will be vested in the police, it is not clear how the new laws will be enforced or what penalties will be available for offenders. Unlike drink-driving, there are no licences to revoke. Although the statement from the minister does suggest that the government might be looking at the introduction of compulsory licensing for recreational boating, a Department of Transport spokesman was able to confirm to madforsailing that, "there is currently nothing in the proposal to take away licences" as a punishment for offenders.

The proposals stem from Lord Justice Clarke's "Thames Safety Report." This was drawn up after the sinking of the commercial pleasure boat "Marchioness" on the Thames and, on the face of it, seems to have little connection with recreational boating. The matter is further complicated by another statement from the Department of Transport which appears to confuse commercial and recreational activity, as they await a second document about an entirely different tragedy. A spokesman at Transport said: "We are waiting for the Cullen report on the Paddington Rail Crash to make recommendations on possible new safety bodies and how we should proceed with safety here, in coping with incidents in all transport modes."

While the Government seems unable to differentiate between commercial and recreational boating, the RYA are quite clear on their position. "The RYA strongly deplores the abuse of alcohol in leisure craft," the sport's governing body said. "It would not object to breath tests for helmsmen of powered craft underway in the case of collision, speeding or dangerous navigation in certain lake, beach and harbour areas. The RYA is not aware of any evidence for the need for change in the present law, except possibly in the situations just mentioned. In all cases this would appropriately be dealt with by new by-laws making powers available to lake, harbour and beach authorities." The RYA goes on to point out, "There is no evidence that this proposed legislation will have any effect on safety".

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