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Drugs and Alcohol

Alcohol use plays a major part in the number of boating accidents and fatalities. According to the Drinking and Recreational Boating Fatalities study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 30%-40% of recreational boaters admitted to drinking while on the water. Although many felt that they could safely drink when they were the passengers, rather than the operators, the findings of the study indicate that the relative risk of death is similar for both operators and passengers when alcohol has been involved.

Whether or not you are legally old enough to drink, alcohol will dull your senses and slow down your physical reactions. No matter how old you are, operating a boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal. Don't even think about it.

It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Boating under the influence (BUI) is every bit as dangerous and deadly as drinking while driving a car! Here are a few facts:

  • Boat operators are prone to become impaired more quickly than automobile drivers, when consuming the same number of drinks!
  • Penalties for BUI may include large fines, revocation of operator privileges and substantial jail terms!
  • Research shows that alcohol is involved in approximately one third of all recreational boating deaths!

Every boater needs to be aware of and understand the high risk of boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs in every state. The Coast Guard also enforces a federal law that prohibits BUI. This law pertains to ALL boats (from the smallest canoes and kayaks to the largest transport ships). The law includes all foreign vessels operating in U.S. waters, or any U.S. vessels on the high seas.

Very Real Dangers

Without exception, consuming alcohol affects judgment, vision, balance, and coordination. Such impairments increase the likelihood of accidents while boating for boat operators and passengers alike. U.S. Coast Guard research indicates that in boating deaths involving alcohol consumption, over half the victims had either fallen overboard or capsized their vessels. There is good reason that alcohol consumption is more hazardous on the water than on land. The marine environment, including motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind, and spray, accelerates impairment. These combined stressors cause fatigue. Fatigue causes faster decline of coordination, judgment, and reaction time when alcohol has been consumed.

In addition, alcohol consumption may prove to be more dangerous to boaters simply because boat operators are often less experienced and less confident on the water than they might be on the highway. Weekend and recreational boaters generally don't benefit from the experience of daily boat operation. The reality is that recreational boaters average only 110 hours on the water each year.

The Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol affects many physical characteristics that directly threaten safety and well-being on the water.

Whenever a boater or passenger drinks, the following occur:

  • It becomes harder to process information, assess situations, and make good choices, because cognitive abilities and judgment deteriorate.
  • Physical performance is impaired. This is witnessed in problems with balance, diminished coordination, and decreased reaction time.
  • Vision becomes affected, including reduced peripheral vision, depth perception, night vision, poor focus, and difficulty in distinguishing colors (particularly red and green).
  • Inner ear disturbances can make it impossible for a person who falls into the water to distinguish between up or down.
  • Alcohol creates a physical sensation of warmth. This false sense of warmth may prevent a person in cold water from getting out prior to hypothermia setting in.

When all of these factors are accounted for, a boat operator with a blood alcohol concentration above 0.10 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 significantly increased risk for injury and death, if they have consumed alcohol.

How Much is Too Much?

The table below provides a guide to average consequences of alcohol consumption. Many factors, including prescription medications and fatigue, can affect an individual's response to alcohol. When these other factors are involved along with drinking alcohol, impairment can occur far more quickly.

There is NO safe threshold for drinking and operating a boat.

Never assume that you are not impaired or safe should you fall into the "rarely" or "possibly" influenced categories.

DRINKS
BODY WEIGHT IN POUNDS
INFLUENCED
100
120
140
160
180
200
220
240
1
0.04
0.04
0.03
0.03
0.02
0.02
0.02
0.02
Rarely
2
0.09*
0.07*
0.06*
0.06*
0.05*
0.04
0.04
0.04
3
0.13
0.11
0.09*
0.08*
0.07*
0.07*
0.06*
0.06*
4
0.18
0.15
0.13
0.11
0.1
0.09*
0.08*
0.07*
Possibly*
5
0.22
0.18
0.16
0.14
0.12
0.11
0.1
0.09*
6
0.26
0.22
0.19
0.17
0.15
0.13
0.12
0.11
7
0.31
0.26
0.22
0.19
0.17
0.15
0.14
0.13
Definitely
8
0.35
0.29
0.25
0.22
0.2
0.18
0.16
0.15
9
0.4
0.33
0.28
0.25
0.22
0.2
0.18
0.17
10
0.44
0.37
0.31
0.28
0.24
0.22
0.2
0.18

*U.S. Coast Guard. BUI Initiatives Available at: http://uscgboating.org/recreational-boaters/boating-under-the-influence.php. Accessed: 9/29/2015.

Break the Law... Face the Consequences!

The U.S. Coast Guard and every state have very tough penalties for violation of BUI laws. Breaking the law can result in severe consequences including large fines, suspension or revocation of boat operator privileges, and jail terms. The Coast Guard and individual states cooperate fully in enforcement to ensure removal of impaired boat operators from the waters.

Individual states have authority to enforce their own BUI laws in waters that are overseen solely by the states. In state waters that are also subject to U.S. jurisdiction, there is concurrent jurisdiction. That means if a boater is apprehended under federal law in these waters, the Coast Guard will (unless precluded by state law) request that state law enforcement officers take the intoxicated boater into custody.

When the Coast Guard determines that an operator is impaired, the voyage may be terminated. The vessel will be brought to mooring by the Coast Guard or a competent and sober person on board the recreational vessel. Depending on the circumstances, the Coast Guard may arrest the operator, detain the operator until sober, or turn the operator over to state or local authorities.

Staying Out of BUI Trouble...

Boating, fishing and other water sports are fun entirely on their own... without adding intoxication to the mix. Drinking on the boat can quickly turn a great day on the water into a tragedy.

Here are some alternatives to using alcohol while boating:

  • Take cool drinks, such as sodas, water, iced tea, lemonade, or non-alcoholic beer.
  • Bring plenty of food and snacks.
  • Wear appropriate clothing that will help keep you and your passengers cool.
  • Pay attention to time allotted for your trip and plan reasonable limits to avoid fatigue. Remember that it's common to become tired more quickly on the water.

If alcohol consumption is part of your trip's plan, make certain it happens ashore at the dock, in a picnic area, at a boating club, or in your backyard... Choose a location where you'll have adequate time between drinking and getting back into your car or boat. If you dock somewhere for lunch or dinner and drink alcohol with your meal, allow a reasonable time to pass (estimated at a minimum of an hour per drink) before operating your boat.

The safest way to enjoy the water is without alcohol aboard. Remember—intoxicated passengers are also at risk of injury or falling overboard, and the boat operator is ultimately responsible for passenger safety.

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