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South Carolina DNR shines a spotlight on BUI Enforcement

JUNE 23, 2020: BUI enforcement in South Carolina has been the cornerstone of a very successful effort to improve the state’s boating incident and boating-related fatality numbers.

Boating has always been a popular activity in South Carolina, but beginning around the late 1980s, the number of boats registered in the state drastically increased. In 1974, records indicate there were just 128,0000 registered vessels in the state. By 1995, that number had more than doubled, and the state experienced one of its highest annual counts of boating incidents that year.

Records show that this explosive growth in South Carolina’s registered boats has been continuous. In 2019, there were 549,000 registered vessels operating in state waters (not to mention thousands of visitors).

“South Carolina is, per-capita, the fifth largest state in terms of boat ownership. We are a boating state,” said Captain Robert McCullough, a veteran South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) officer who oversees the agency’s Office of Media and Outreach.

Boating in South Carolina has also gone from being a mostly seasonal activity to one that is just about year-round. Remarkably, while the number of boats and boaters has continued to rise, the rate of incidents and boating-related fatalities has decreased, both in terms of accidents per-1,000 registered vessels, and in raw numbers.
BAT Mobile - N Charleston
It’s well-known that alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in recreational boater deaths.1 While there may often be another, more proximate, cause of a collision – such as failure to maintain a proper lookout – alcohol use is very often a contributing factor. Because of this, an aggressive and innovative Boating Under the Influence (BUI) enforcement strategy has been at the center of SCDNR’s successful efforts to bring down the state’s incident and fatality numbers, beginning in 1996 when the agency’s first Boating Safety Action Force (B-SAF) team was created.

BUI enforcement is a year-round priority for SCDNR Officers patrolling the waterways of the Palmetto State. The basic strategy behind B-SAF was to supplement those regular boating enforcement patrols with concentrated, highly visible “saturation” patrols during high-traffic weekends and events such as major holidays, regattas or festivals during the spring and summer boating seasons. B-SAF remains an important component of the agency’s overall boating enforcement effort.

 “A lot of the success that we’ve had is due to our enforcement program, and our related public awareness programs,” said SCDNR Major Gary Sullivan, who has been involved in B-SAF since its inception. “On the enforcement side, we created additional and more in-depth training on BUI detection, and we took that training to the officers in every district or region. I can still remember going around to every district and teaching the same field sobriety test to each officer statewide, so we all did it the same way.”

SCDNR also worked with the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) SC DNR - BAT Mobileand other states to develop and test new field sobriety protocols specifically for the marine environment. “We helped NASBLA develop an on-water battery of standardized testing, which allows us to be able to test people without having to take them back to a dock or boat landing,” said SCDNR Capt. Ellis. “It took several years to develop that research, which has since become a national standard for field sobriety testing on the water.”   

All new SCDNR officers are trained in advanced BUI detection using the techniques developed in this effort, along with yearly refresher courses. The training and techniques are also utilized by many other law enforcement agencies around the U.S.

BUI enforcement efforts have also gotten more efficient – and more visible – thanks to the addition of a critical tool, the “BAT-mobile”. The BAT-mobile is a blood alcohol testing lab on wheels that can be deployed to a boat landing or other convenient place during festivals, regattas or high-traffic weekends. The BAT-mobile not only shaves a tremendous amount of time off of the process of making a BUI arrest, allowing officers to get back on the water faster, but also is a highly visible reminder to all who see it that SCDNR and the B-SAF team are on the water.
SCDNR - BAT Mobile
“The biggest advantage that I saw come from the BAT-mobile immediately was – from arrest to test – it saved us anywhere from one hour to three hours,” said Sullivan. “When you can test someone within 30 minutes or less of them being arrested, that’s a huge advantage in terms of making that case.” 

“We first began using the BAT-mobile in 2006, and that first year, SCDNR Officers made 64 BUI cases (compared with 26 in 2005),” said Ellis. “During the next three to five years, we also ramped up training for all of our officers on field sobriety testing techniques and getting all of them comfortable and able to recognize the signs of impairment.”

SCDNR has also partnered with the South Carolina Highway Patrol and local law enforcement agencies tasked with enforcing traffic at these events, allowing them to use the BAT-mobile for DUI enforcement. However, that is not the only avenue of cooperation between the SCDNR and the Highway Patrol when it comes to drinking and boating or driving. The two agencies have been cooperating on a joint public awareness campaign for more than a decade now during the summer season with ads, billboards, news releases and social media messaging underscoring the risks of both BUI and DUI, and the fact that the two agencies are dedicated to the enforcement of both.
Beaufort Water Festival - Marine Patrol
Utilizing these tools, SCDNR officers began making more BUI arrests, with those numbers peaking in 2012. During that same timeframe, accident and fatality numbers began decreasing, as the combination of aggressive enforcement and effective public awareness began to pay dividends. 

Another program that has contributed greatly to the education of the public is the courtesy boat inspections that members of the B-SAF Team conduct annually throughout the boating season at high-traffic boat landings.

The bottom line is that success in this endeavor has been a team effort and was also the result of a deliberate strategy and a great deal of hard work. It’s a feather in the cap of senior leadership within the SCDNR’s Law Enforcement Division, but the real winners are South Carolina’s boating public, who are able to enjoy their time spent on South Carolina’s waters, and do so in a way that allows everyone to get home safe.


12019 U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics.