Reach your hand down into the cooler/
Don’t drink it if the mountains aren’t blue/
Try to keep it steady as you recline on your black inner tube/
Country music fans will no doubt recognize the lyrics to the smash hit “Pontoon” by the group Little Big Town. This instant summer playlist classic extolls the virtues of kickin’ back, floating with friends at 5 mph. If this song makes you want to immediately befriend that neighbor with a boat in their driveway, I understand. It’s a catchy song, and with the Labor Day holiday this weekend, there are precious few chances left to enjoy a summer’s day on the water.
All fun aside, that leads to a question: Should Boating Under the Influence (BUIs) carry the same weight (and the cumulative consequences) as driving a car under the influence? How safe is boating when alcohol consumption is involved?
According to U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics, alcohol use was the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents reported in 2011, the cause of 16% of 758 deaths. It is illegal in all states to operate a boat, from a canoe up to the largest vessel, while under the influence, but open containers are allowed on boats in most states.
The public has been educated for many years about the dangers of drinking and driving thanks to driver education programs and groups such as MADD. However, no training is required in order to own or operate a boat, so a person who is familiar with the effects of drinking and driving on the road might not understand the exaggerated effects of alcohol on one’s system while out on the water. Environmental factors such as heat, sun, wind, and motion can heighten the effects of alcohol. The loss of judgment, vision, balance, and reaction time that accompanies alcohol consumption can prove to be even more dangerous when on the water than on the road, since most boat operators have more experience driving a vehicle than a boat.
Not all boating fatalities involving alcohol are the fault of an impaired boat driver. For example, passengers who feel more relaxed about imbibing when someone else is at the helm can lose their balance and fall overboard. Individuals over the age of 13 are not required to wear a life vest on boats, so when alcohol, no life vest, and an increased susceptibility to the effects of cold water are combined, a tragedy can be the outcome.
States differ on their BUI limits, but 0.08 is the limit for the majority of states, as well as the federal limit. Penalties for a BUI vary from state to state. According to NASBLA, the National Association of Boating Law Administrators, there are only 15 states where a BUI conviction impacts a person’s ability to drive an automobile in their state. New York is one state working to toughen up sentencing laws with Tiffany’s Law, which would take all prior convictions of operating any motorized vehicle while under the influence into consideration when sentencing a BUI conviction.
One heartening number from USCG Recreational Statistics shows that education makes a difference. Boating operators who had received some kind of safety instruction were involved in only 11% of total boating fatalities in 2011.
So, before you back that hitch out into water, you might want to consider a boating safety class.
Stay safe and sober on the water. Wear your life vest. Be aware of the unique dangers of drinking while boating. And have a safe Labor Day Weekend!