Dangers of Boating While Intoxicated (BWI)
Every boater needs to be aware of the risks associated with boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI or BWI). In every state, it is illegal to operate a boat while intoxicated, and the Coast Guard also enforces a strict federal BUI law. This law applies to all types of vessels, covering domestic and foreign vessels operating in U.S. waters, as well as U.S. vessels on open seas.
There are about 17 million boats currently being used in the United States, which has 95,000 miles of shoreline, about 25,000 miles of navigable inland waterways, and 14 million acres of lakes. That’s a lot of boats on a lot of water. Every year, thousands of boating accidents occur, many of them involving serious injuries and even deaths. Unfortunately, a third of boating accidents are due to one or more of the boaters being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In each of the 50 states, boating under the influence (BUI) is against the law. Even the states that are landlocked have inland waterways where impaired boat operators have caused accidents. If the state doesn’t have an external shoreline, its own BUI laws will be used to prosecute a violator. If a boating accident takes place on U.S. shoreline waters, federal BUI laws will also apply.
It is important for all boaters to recognize that there is no safe threshold for drinking and operating a boat, so avoiding BUI entirely is the only way to ensure safety on the water. Alternatives to using alcohol include taking cold drinks like sodas and water onboard, wearing clothes that help keep everyone cool, scheduling shorter trips to avoid fatigue, and hosting parties away from the boat once docked. If you do intend to eat and drink ashore then wait for a minimum of one hour per drink before returning to the boat. Above all else remember that having no alcohol aboard is the safest way to enjoy being out on the water – intoxicated passengers are also at risk of injuries and falling overboard!
Penalties for BWI/BUI
The Coast Guard and every state have stringent penalties for breaking BUI rules. Penalties can include large fines, loss of boat operator privileges (such as suspension or revocation), and jail terms. The Coast Guard and states work together in enforcement to remove any impaired boaters from the waters. When the Coast Guard determines an operator is impaired, the voyage may be terminated and the vessel brought to mooring either by the Coast Guard or an un-intoxicated person. Depending on the circumstances, operators may be arrested, detained until sober, or turned over to state or local authorities.
The various state and federal statutes regarding BUI have strict penalties for operating a boat or personal watercraft (such as a jet ski) while under the influence. These penalties include:
- Large fines
- Revocation of operator privileges
- Serious jail terms
Blood Alcohol Concentration Limits
The federal government and states have differing blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) limits for BUI offenses. In addition, conditions surrounding the accident may increase a BUI sentence. In many states, if a minor child is in the boat while the operator is driving drunk, the penalty will be higher. Or, if the boat operator is under the age of 21, any measurable amount of blood alcohol will result in a BUI charge.
People Don’t Recognize the Danger
Many people don’t realize the potential for boating accidents based on alcohol or drug use. Americans aren’t as aware of the dangers of alcohol/drug use on the waterways as they are of driving a car while drunk or drugged. It’s not unusual for boaters to go out onto the water with a supply of alcohol as part of their recreation, although they wouldn’t drive a car while drinking. The risk of a BUI arrest is not on their minds.
Alcohol Affects Judgment and Performance
Alcohol affects judgment, vision, balance, and coordination, which can easily put both passengers and boat operators at risk when on the water. Data from the U.S. Coast Guard has shown that in boating deaths involving alcohol use, over half the victims capsized their boats or fell overboard. On top of this, using alcohol on the water is even more dangerous than on land due to additional factors such as motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind, and spray – these stresses accelerate a drinker’s impairment.
Physical Effects of Alcohol on Boaters
When someone drinks alcohol on board a vessel there are physical effects that directly threaten safety and well-being:
- Cognitive abilities and judgment deteriorate, making it harder to process information and make good decisions.
- Physical performance is impaired – evidenced by balance issues, lack of coordination, and slowed reaction time.
- Vision changes – decreased peripheral vision, reduced depth perception, diminished night vision, poor focus, and difficulty distinguishing colors (particularly red and green).
- Inner ear disturbances can make it impossible to distinguish up from down when in the water.
- A physical sensation of warmth can prevent a person in cold water from getting out before hypothermia sets in.
Due to these factors, a boater with a blood alcohol concentration above .10 percent is estimated to be more than 10 times as likely to die in a boating accident than an operator with zero blood alcohol concentration. Passengers are also at greatly increased risk for injury and death if they are also consuming alcohol onboard.
The boating environment can easily increase a drinker’s impairment compared to the typical car-driving environment. Drink for drink, a boat operator is likely to become impaired more quickly than a car driver. The factors that can accelerate the effects of alcohol or drugs and result in boating under the influence include:
- The constant motion of a boat on the water
- Water spray
- Engine noise
- A boat operator’s use of prescription medicines compounds the above effects.
If you’ve been charged with BUI, you should seek the advice of an experienced attorney as soon as possible. The laws and conditions regarding BUI are special, and it’s best to have an attorney who is familiar with this field of law. Contact a BUI lawyer today for the assistance you need.