Question of the Week

July 28, 2009


Drunk driving is dangerous. With summer in full swing, and more people out in boats enjoying the summer weather, accidents that are resulting from being drunk on the water are making the news.

"SALEM, Mass. -- A Marblehead woman will face drunken driving charges after police say she lost control of her boat on Friday night, tumbled overboard and sent the craft sailing out of Salem Harbor. Caroline Driscoll, 41, and a male passenger were thrown out of the boat at about 7 p.m. on Friday as it whirled out of control, crashing onto a yard at 441 Lafayette St. Driscoll was hospitalized with minor injuries. Police said she and the passenger, who was not injured, were both drinking before the crash. Witnesses said the boat was skipping over waves in a donut pattern before it flew out of the water. 'The boat just started to go in circles. It started to pick up speed,' said Linsday Moran. 'It looked like it was coming at us. We started running.' ... Leaves and other debris were strewn throughout the cabin after the boat came to rest in a rocky patch of trees on the lawn."

Unfortunately, some people who would never consider drinking alcohol while (or before) driving a car, don't think twice about mixing alcohol and boating.

"Did you know:

  • A boat operator is likely to become impaired more quickly than a driver, drink for drink?
  • The penalties for BUI [Boating Under the Influence] can include large fines, revocation of operator privileges and serious jail terms?
  • The use of alcohol is involved in about a third of all recreational boating fatalities?
Every boater needs to understand the risks of boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI). 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 canoes and rowboats to the largest ships)."

Every state has laws against operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. These laws often resemble the laws that apply to driving a car while under the influence. For example:

"Florida's laws against boating while impaired by alcohol or other drugs are as strict as those for driving a vehicle while impaired. Florida law prohibits anyone from boating under the influence (BUI). That is, it is illegal to operate any vessel or to manipulate any water skis, sailboard, or similar device while intoxicated due to alcohol or any combination of alcohol, a controlled substance, or drugs. Alcohol and drugs cause impaired balance, blurred vision, poor coordination, impaired judgment, and slower reaction time. Alcohol is a major contributor to boating accidents and fatalities. ... Florida law states that a person is considered to be "under the influence" if he or she has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher, or is under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs to a degree which impairs his or her normal abilities. A blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 to 0.08 also may indicate a person is 'under the influence' if accompanied by other competent evidence."

While some of the same logic applies as to why it would be unsafe to operate a boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs since it would be unsafe to operate a car, few understand that it is actually more dangerous to operate a boat in an impaired state.

"Alcohol affects judgment, vision, balance and coordination. These impairments increase the likelihood of accidents afloat – for both passengers and boat operators. U.S. Coast Guard data shows that in boating deaths involving alcohol use, over half the victims capsized their boats and/or fell overboard. Alcohol is even more hazardous on the water than on land. The marine environment – motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind and spray – accelerates a drinker's impairment. These stressors cause fatigue that makes a boat operator's coordination, judgment and reaction time decline even faster when using alcohol. Alcohol can also be more dangerous to boaters because boat operators are often less experienced and less confident on the water than on the highway. Recreational boaters don't have the benefit of experiencing daily boat operation. In fact, boaters average only 110 hours on the water per year."

Additionally, it is not just the designated driver on the boat who needs to be safe. Passengers on boats put themselves at risk when they drink, as well.

"When a boater or passenger drinks, the following occur:

  • Cognitive abilities and judgment deteriorate, making it harder to process information, assess situations, and make good choices.
  • Physical performance is impaired - evidenced by balance problems, lack of coordination, and increased reaction time.
  • Vision is affected, including decreased peripheral vision, reduced depth perception, decreased 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 up from down.
  • Alcohol creates a physical sensation of warmth - which may prevent a person in cold water from getting out before hypothermia sets in."

The bottom line: whether someone is the boat operator or a passenger out on the water maintaining the ability to balance and have good judgment are key to safety.

"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 greatly increased risk for injury and death - especially if they are also using alcohol."

Questions of the Week:
Why do you think that some people don't take boating under the influence as seriously as they take driving a car under the influence? What do those who will be operating boats need to know about the effects of alcohol on boaters? What do those who will be passengers on boats need to know about the dangers of drinking while on the water (even if they won't be operating the boat)? How can being on or near water make the effects of alcohol more dangerous? For those who will be swimming in and/or playing near the water--but not out on boats--what is it important to know about the effects of alcohol on the body and judgment?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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