The aura of carefree fun permeates our image of water activity, so when an outing turns to tragedy, those affected travel in an instant an immense emotional distance from great joy to immense suffering. And unfortunately, it is usually alcohol or drugs that initiate the journey.
On Sunday, in the humid heart of the summer water recreation season, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation intended to reduce the chances that fun on a lake or river will turn to horror. The bill, an outgrowth of an alcohol- and drug-related accident in July 2012 that claimed the life of a 10-year-old Libertyville boy, ties the privilege of driving an automobile to that of operating a watercraft.
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The legislation is in many ways more symbolic than practical, for it doesn't come into play unless an accident occurs involving serious accident or injury, at which point, considering that operating a boat under the influence of drugs or alcohol is already a crime, an operator likely will be facing far more serious consequences than the mere loss of a driver's license.
But the symbolism is important. It emphasizes our recognition of the immense responsibility attached to operating motorized vehicles, regardless of their setting, and of the unique power of alcohol and other substances to penetrate the thin barrier between delight and catastrophe. That is a message that cannot be repeated too often.
Indeed, people can be easily lulled into thinking that operating a boat is so much less complicated than operating a car or truck that it can be managed with less focus on safety. As Jim Borcia, whose 10-year-old son, Tony, was killed by a speedboat while he was tubing with his family, points out, the opposite is true.
"Boats don't have brakes," Borcia stated in a Sunday Daily Herald story by State Government Writer Mike Riopell.
Nor do waterways have street signs, clearly marked traffic lanes or speed limits. Introduce alcohol or other substances into such an environment and the potential for tragedy is all too real.
Borcia notes that's a key message of the Y-Not Project, www.ynotproject.com, his family initiated in his son's memory to spread the word about the dangers of boating drunk. The legislation that Quinn signed Sunday allowing authorities to take away driving privileges of boaters who refuse drug or alcohol tests following a serious water accident may have some deterrent effect, but its more lasting value may be in adding one more reminder to all of us of the grave risk that accompanies operating a boat while drinking. Sponsor Democrat Sen. Julie Morrison of Deerfield said the law is "a first step" toward improving water safety.
It is indeed an important step, too, coming at an auspicious time to help protect anyone who ventures out for a carefree summer day on Illinois' lakes and rivers from a sudden plunge into life-changing sorrow.