When warmer weather beckons, we naturally head to the water. There is nothing like sun, shore, and having fun in or on the water. It is a time to unwind and enjoy the company of family and friends, not to mention cool refreshment, often in the form of alcohol.
But the alchemy of mixing boats with alcohol can be highly dangerous. Alcohol is the leading known contributor of fatal boating accidents. In 2020, boating fatalities increased more than 25% from the previous year, along with a 26% increase in total accidents and a 25% increase in nonfatal injuries. Behind those percentages are real lives that have been lost or severely impacted. In 2020 alone, 767 lives were lost as a result of boating accidents that were largely avoidable.
When you mix alcohol with summer weather and watercraft, the heat and sun can magnify the effects of alcohol intake, impairing a boater’s judgment, balance, vision, and reaction time while increasing fatigue and the ill effects of being immersed in cold water. In fact, there has been research demonstrating that hours of exposure to boating conditions such as noise, vibration, sun, glare, wind, and the overall motion of the water produce something called “boater’s hypnosis” or fatigue that can in itself cause impairment akin to alcohol use. Add to that alcohol consumption and the communal aspect of boating where large groups of people gather to enjoy the water, and you increase the likelihood of someone being killed or injured.
Just last year, a man in Georgia was charged with BUI (Boating Under the Influence) in a single boating accident that killed five people and injured another four. And, in Massachusetts, a boat owned by an attorney with the ironic name “Naut Guilty” was involved in an accident that resulted in a 19-year-old’s arm being severed by the boat’s propellor.
Most states have enacted laws pertaining to operating watercraft under the influence of alcohol or drugs similar to operating motor vehicles. Those laws not only pertain to motorized watercraft, but all boats, including canoes, kayaks, or rowboats. Typically, the alcohol threshold for BUI is 0.08 g/dL and fines and penalties can escalate from there. Operating a boat under the influence is also a federal offense. Those found guilty at the state or federal levels can be penalized through fines, jail time, criminal charges, loss of driving privileges, and even loss of the vessel itself. In Pennsylvania, for example, there are five separate types of BUI with worsening penalties scaled to the level of alcohol or drugs in the boat operator’s system.
The cautionary tale here is to exercise due caution on the water. For operators, that includes understanding how to operate the boat, the licensing laws in your state, and the body of water you are navigating. For passengers (as well as operators), wearing a life jacket is a must – the U.S. Coast Guard estimates that more than 80% of boating fatality victims could have survived if they had been wearing a life jacket. You should also know what to do if someone goes overboard, and exercise courtesy at all times. Above all, avoid excessive alcohol consumption, or at the very least have a designated sober operator if others on the boat plan to indulge. Having these safeguards in place will help everyone relax and enjoy the sun and water.
If you or your family has been impacted by the tragic mix of alcohol and boating, we are here for you. Contact us to discuss your legal options.