At a bend in the river, a powerboat heading downstream slams into the port side of a pontoon boat headed upstream. One passenger on each boat dies in the collision. The powerboat operator tells investigators she’d had a few “light” beers hours before getting on the boat. But a passenger reports that the driver was operating recklessly just before the collision and that she was drinking something from a water bottle that he took to be a mixed alcoholic beverage. Field sobriety tests conducted at the scene show the woman to be extremely intoxicated, and she is taken into custody.
Lives lost. Others forever changed by a moment of thoughtless behavior and the assumption that alcohol and recreational boating mix. They don’t.
Many times, intoxicated individuals continue to operate their vessels despite the fact that they cannot take the quick action necessary to navigate safely and avoid a collision. People don’t wear their life jackets and don’t keep an eye out for other vessels.
Speed and distances on the water are not always easy to determine. Add alcohol and these determinations are even more difficult, increasing the likelihood of a collision, grounding or other accident.
Currently, nearly 20 percent of all boating fatalities are the result of boating under the influence (BUI) of alcohol or drugs. As a result, states have gotten tougher enforcing laws against this high-risk behavior. Recreational vessel operators with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent or higher will find their voyage terminated and may have their vessel impounded. Penalties can include arrest, fines, loss of boating privileges and even loss of driving privileges.
The U.S. Coast Guard enforces a federal BUI law that pertains to all boats, from canoes and rowboats to the largest ships, and includes foreign vessels that operate in U.S. waters, as well as U.S. vessels on the high seas.
In addition, Operation Dry Water, a national multi-agency BUI detection and enforcement initiative, puts thousands of state and federal marine officers on the water the weekend before July 4. This gives BUI enforcement high visibility before a holiday known for drinking and boating – and deadly accidents. This year, Operation Dry Water takes place June 24-26. More information on ODW is available at operationdrywater.org.
A variety of sobriety tests and procedures have been used in the past to determine if an individual is intoxicated. Despite these efforts, determining intoxication on a bobbing boat has been problematic and sometimes controversial. Also, after being brought ashore, an individual suspected of BUI may require time to get his “land legs” before any tests can be administered.
That has now changed. A three-year field evaluation of afloat field sobriety tests, funded by the U.S. Coast Guard and managed by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, has been completed and published by the Southern California Research Institute. This study validated a battery of tests for marine use and is now the basis for a push to implement a National Marine Field Sobriety Test standard.
With validated field sobriety tests for use on the water, we hope to stop intoxicated recreational boaters and to impress upon all boaters that operating a vessel while under the influence is too great a risk.