For years, the media has done a good job of educating the public on the dangers and consequences of driving a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Much less has been written, however, about the impact of alcohol consumption on boating safety.
Boating under the influence (BUI) is illegal in all 50 states. It’s also a v iolation of federal law enforced by the Coast Guard. Strict penalties are on the books in every state, including the possibility of large fines, suspension or revocation of operator privileges, and even jail terms.
In May 2013, the Washington Legislature passed a bill (effective July 28, 2013) strengthening the state’s BUI law. Boating under the influence of marijuana, as well as alcohol, is now illegal, and BUI penalties have been strengthened, including adding a $1,000 fine for refusing a BUI breath or blood test.
Hazards on Northwest waterways become magnified by alcohol and marijuana. Washington and Oregon waters are some of the most densely populated nautical areas in the continental United States. Even the slightest impairment in that congested environment can turn deadly when it’s intensified by the water’s constant motion, the boat’s vibrations and engine noise, and the elements of sun and wind.
The United States Coast Guard estimates that a boater with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 (the legal limit in both Washington and Oregon) is 10 times more likely to be killed in a boating accident than a boater with zero BAC. An impaired boater’s potential for disaster is compounded because boaters are typically less experienced and less confident on the water than on the road, and in states like Washington and Oregon that have seasonal boating, operators sometimes go months between outings.
Impairment can be dangerous for passengers as well. Alcohol consumption can cause an inner-ear disturbance that makes it impossible for a person suddenly immersed in water to distinguish up from down. The sense of warmth created by alcohol can prevent a person in cold water from getting out before hypothermia takes over.
To learn more about the laws surrounding alcohol, marijuana, and boating, visit Boat Washington Course (Washington) and the Oregon State Marine Board.