Boating Under The Influence Can Be Deadly
Every year, nearly 1,000 people die in boating accidents nationwide; 50% of these accidents are alcohol related.
"This doesn’t have to happen," says Rick Storm, chief law enforcement officer of Colorado State Parks. "But people don’t understand that they need to wear life jackets and they need to stay sober, because it only takes about a third as much alcohol to impair a person’s judgment on water as it does on land."
According to the National Transportation and Safety Board, recreational boating accidents are second only to highway accidents in the number of fatalities. "Boating on crowded waterways can be chaotic since there are no stop signs, lanes or speed limits, and boats have no brakes. Add to this alcohol and a phenomenon called ‘boater’s hypnosis’ and the result can be fatal."
Boater’s hypnosis, or boater’s fatigue, is caused by exposure to noise, vibration, sun, glare, wind and motion experienced on the water. It can cause a person’s reaction time to slow down -- almost as much as if they were legally drunk. The addition of alcohol to these stress factors intensifies the effect of the hypnosis, causing a person who has not been drinking heavily to feel as if they are intoxicated, increasing the likelihood of an accident.
Colorado State Parks’ "Boat Smart from the Start" outlines the federal and state requirements for life jacket use, stressing their importance for adults and especially for children.
"Life jackets are essential," says David Pilvelait, community relations director for the Boat Owners Association of the United States. "Most boating accidents happen when someone falls overboard," he explains, "and nine out of ten people who drown are not wearing a life jacket."
Another issue that is often overlooked is the phenomenon that occurs when swimmers get water in their ears, causing them to become disoriented. For those who have been drinking, this can be intensified so much that they swim down to their death instead of up to safety. This, Storm explains, is why some good swimmers who have been drinking drown for no apparent reason.
"So regardless of the condition of the driver," Storm says, "if the passenger is intoxicated, the risk of drowning is heightened by this factor alone."
Another problem with water safety awareness, according to Ron Dunlap, boating safety coordinator for Colorado State Parks, is that many don’t fully understand that there are laws regulating the operation of motorboats and personal watercraft.
"Colorado law puts the minimum operating age as 16 [with the exception of 14 and 15 year olds who have an approved operator’s card]," Dunlap says. "It also prohibits nighttime and careless or reckless operation, requires all operators and passengers to wear U.S. Cost Guard approved life jackets and requires operators to use a lanyard switch," he added.
"But more and more it seems that people either don’t know that these laws are in effect," Dunlap says, "or they just ignore them."
Under Colorado law, this offence mirrors the state’s driving under the influence law, with the exception of penalties. Sentences for a first-time offender range from: five days to six months in jail, a fine of $100 to $1,000, up to two years of probation, and a mandatory three-month ban on boating in state waters.
"Boating under the influence is not only illegal, but it’s dangerous," Pilvelait says. "A boater who is intoxicated is ten times more likely to be killed in a boating accident than a boater who is not." With so many factors already challenging those on the water, adding alcohol to these merely taunts danger. By following straightforward water safety guide lines, and staying sober, it is easy to enjoy the water and play in the sun this summer.
So remember, boat smart form the start, and keep in mind that drinking isn’t the sport. Boating is.