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Cracking Down on Drunk Boaters

BUI Enforcement Getting a Boost with Standardized Field Sobriety Tests for Use on the Water
Boating Safety

At a bend in the river, a powerboat headed downstream slams into the port side of a pontoon boat headed upstream.  A passenger in the pontoon boat is ejected and dies of massive internal chest and abdominal injuries. A child riding in the powerboat is later found downstream drowned.

The powerboat operator tells investigators she’d had a few “lite” beers hours earlier before getting on the boat.  But a passenger reports that she 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.

Over the years I’ve seen examples of inappropriate behavior from individuals who consumed alcohol on the water, and the results are too often devastating.  Many times intoxicated individuals continue to operate their vessels despite the fact that they cannot take the quick action necessary to safely navigate and avoid a collision.  Life jackets will not be worn, keeping an eye out for other vessels will not happen. Speed and distances on the water are not always easy to determine. Add alcohol and these determinations are even more difficult and the chances of a collision, grounding or other accident increase.   I once witnessed an intoxicated individual being taken into custody run and jump off a pier into what he thought was the water.  The rocks he landed on were not very forgiving.

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 in enforcing laws against this kind of high-risk behavior. Boaters operating a recreational vessel 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, 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 (ODW), a national, multi-agency BUI detection and enforcement initiative, puts thousands of state and federal marine officers on the water the weekend before the 4th of July.  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

A variety of sobriety tests and procedures have been used in the past to determine if an individual is intoxicated, including afloat tests (such as the finger count and the palm pat), ashore tests (one-leg stand, the walk and turn), and chemical tests using blood, breath and urine samples. Despite these efforts, determining intoxication on a bobbing boat has been problematic and sometimes controversial.  Also, 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 (NASBLA), has just 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.

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