Boating Accident

Keeping Our Waterways Safe

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Boating While Impaired Endangers Thousands of Lives Each Year

When asked to finish the sentence, “don’t drink and…” most people will unequivocally answer “drive.” While this is true, it’s far from the only activity that becomes dangerous when you use alcohol. Unbeknownst to many, alcohol is widely recognized as “the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents,” as related by the United States Coast Guard. As the weather gets nicer and our lakes and rivers become prime for boating and water sports, we should always remember these activities can turn tragic if we’re not careful.

It would be hard to understate how impactful alcohol use is on boating. BoatUS Foundation, a prominent organization dedicated to safe boating, informs us that nearly 50% of all boating accidents involve alcohol in some capacity. The science of how alcohol impairs us tells us why this might be. Alcohol impairs our judgment, leading to poor decision-making and risky choices. Our reaction time is also slowed, and our vision becomes distorted. This would make even the most capable operator susceptible to mistakes and oversights that can quickly turn dangerous.

Why is it that many continue to boat and use alcohol? One possible explanation would be the myths that continue to prevail regarding the use of alcohol. One popular myth tells us that alcohol is a good way to warm up, should the wind turn cold. This would seem to be true, but it’s not. While alcohol acts to dilate your blood vessels and thus make you feel warmer, your body’s internal thermostat still remains susceptible to the cold and conditions such as hypothermia. Additionally, many feel that alcohol’s impairment effects can be offset with caffeine, such as in coffee or an energy drink. This may make the person feel more awake and alert, but only exacerbates the impairment effects, as the drinker doesn’t feel impaired and actually becomes more likely to engage in risk-taking and to drink more.

The dangers of alcohol have not gone unnoticed by authorities in charge of patrolling our waterways. Boating under the Influence laws exist in all states and at the Federal level, designed much the same way as impaired driving laws. In Iowa, the intoxicated level for boating is the same as driving: .08 blood alcohol level. It’s important to note that impairment can take place even before .08, and reaching .08 does not take long. To give you an idea, a 180-pound man can, on average, reach this level after 4 standard drinks. A standard drink is defined roughly as a 12-ounce can of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of liquor.

What, then, should boaters do? The standard advice given to drivers applies here: If you plan to operate a boat, the best advice is to refrain from alcohol completely. Many think they can judge their level of impairment, but that’s never advisable. Drinking alcohol can be low-risk for those that don’t drive or operate a boat, provided they don’t go over 3 standard drinks, stay hydrated, and have food in their system. Following these simple guidelines can keep this fun pastime safe.