Changing the Behavior of Boaters


It is an encouraging sign of the times when more stringent laws are enacted to help curtail the use of alcohol while recreating on the water.

On January 1, 2015, Indiana and Michigan began enforcing new laws regarding Boating Under the Influence (BUI) legislation and Florida is looking at some proposed legislation along the same lines.

Indiana increased the penalty of a BUI conviction to now have the person’s driver’s license suspended for operating under the influence of alcohol or intoxicating compounds. They did this by combing the BUI section of the statue into the DUI section.

In Michigan, legislators voted to decrease the BUI threshold to .08 from .10. People younger than 21 may not operate a boat with any alcohol in their system.

Florida is considering legislation that would put BUI convictions on a person’s driving record. The BUI charge would be considered prior offenses if someone were later found guilty of driving under the influence, and vice versa.

While the aforementioned legislation is encouraging, six states currently have a minimum blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of .10, instead of the more restrictive .08 BAC.

BUI regulations help minimize or prevent the possibility that an intoxicated person will operate a vessel on the water, reduce the threat of harm to oneself and others. Use criminal and civil laws to discourage operating a boat while drunk or under the influence of narcotics.

Whether the BAC limit is .10 or .08, the problem isn’t alcohol in and of itself; it is the abuse and/or addiction of alcohol that causes so much grief. I recall my initial training for BUI enforcement and the instructor telling the class how there was a documented .70 or higher BAC recorded in all 50 states. That’s 700 mg/dL? Are you kidding me? Oh, and then the instructor went on to say that nearly all these BAC results were recorded post mortem…that made me feel only slightly better.

Recreational boat passengers are just as likely as operators to die as a result of drinking alcohol. They drink, lose their balance, fall overboard and drown. It’s what they do. Even with a BAC of only 0.01, the risk to operators and passengers increased 30 percent compared to individuals with no alcohol in their blood. The risk of death was more than 52 times greater when victims showed a BAC of 0.25 (Smith, G; Keyl, P; Hadley, J; Bartley, C; Foss, R; Tolbert, W; McKnight, J. Drinking and Recreational Boating Fatalities: A Population-Based Case-Control Study).

We know that drowning is the primary cause of boater fatalities. Information we send out to the public should include not only operator responsibilities to avoid drowning, but passenger responsibilities as well. So, while it is immensely important to have a designated skipper, we must emphasize there is also a need to ensure passengers do not become so intoxicated they fall out of the boat and drown.

As educators and enforcement personnel, we need to change the culture of the boating and drinking theme to help decrease the alcohol related deaths. The message “You can drink on a boat, you just can’t be drunk” is probably not the message we want to send. Communication to students in a boating safety class should be more direct, such as “More and more boaters are leaving the cooler at home, so be a smart boater and don’t drink and boat. If you do decide to drink and boat and become intoxicated, just know that the consequences are swift and severe.”

But no matter how much training, publicity, or enforcement goes on about the consequences of being under the influence, our law enforcement officers are constantly having to keep tabs on some boaters who are determined on having an alcohol/drug induced cruise which often includes an ice-packed cooler of beer, a medicine bottle stuffed with weed and a group of friends all loaded in a powerboat (pun intended).

Promoting boating and drinking is easy. Promoting moderation or abstinence of alcohol (and drugs) while boating, isn’t. But we must.

So as we get ready for another challenging boating season by teaching classes and ramping up enforcement efforts such as Operation Dry Water, let’s focus on changing the behavior of our recreational boating society to help reduce the alcohol related cause of accidents resulting in the death of a recreational boater.

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