Tuesday, July 1, 2003

River wreck: Reckless boating

Stricter enforcement

Friday night's horrific hit-and-run wreck on the Ohio River opposite Dayton, Ky., should prompt a review of speed limit enforcement.

About 11:30 p.m. Friday, a 40-foot, three-engine speedboat of the offshore type known as "cigarette boats" slammed into a slow-moving 21-foot "picnic boat" and injured six of the seven people on board, some critically. The speedboat stopped briefly on the Ohio side to check for damage, then headed up river. About 1 p.m. Saturday, Moscow, Ohio Mayor Tim Suter spotted a high-speed sport boat with a severely damaged motor being towed away from the boat ramp there by two men in a blue GMC truck and a woman in a dark Cadillac with Kentucky plates. The boat bore the inscription "Snap Decision."

Several witnesses reported seeing a "cigarette boat" racing up and down the river at reckless speeds for as long as 10 hours Friday. Last year, Kentucky joined Ohio in expanding the slow-speed, no-wake zone to 24 hours a day between the Brent Spence and Daniel Carter Beard bridges. But Friday's wreck was east of the Beard Bridge, and speed boats routinely violate the slow-down zone. As with highway speed limits, boating speed limits are useless if not enforced.

The river should belong to everyone, and a reckless few should not be allowed to endanger the many. Law officers and judges need to make an example of the worst offenders, and Friday's hit-skip perpetrator is a good candidate for maximum penalties.

The Coast Guard does not enforce boating speed limits. States are responsible. Ohio and Kentucky last year also signed a bi-state agreement that allows each state to enforce mutual jurisdiction across the width of the Ohio River between the two states. But the ranks of state watercraft officers are stretched thin. Ohio and Kentucky need to make sure joint responsibility doesn't translate into diluted enforcement.

State boating officers need to be as rigorous in enforcing the rules on waterways as state highway patrols are on highways. There is no double standard excusing boaters for speeding, drunk driving or other violations of public-safety laws. Citizens can help by reporting violators to state departments of natural resources or local law enforcement.

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