Alcohol, Boating, And The Law

by William Jorden on May 17, 2011

by William T. Jorden, Esquire

After a long, cold and dreary Western Pennsylvanians winter, we relish the fun of summer. For many of us, fun means boating. For many boaters, fun also includes an ice chest of beer or other alcoholic drink.

Whether you are an experienced boater, a novice to the sport of boating, or an occasional guest on the water, drinking responsibly can be a matter of life and death. To act responsibly requires an appreciation of the effects that even a small amount of alcohol can have on a boater.

Here are some of the sobering facts. Eight hundred (800) or more people die in boating accidents every year. More than 80% of them drown. Drowning is the third leading cause of accidental death in the United States. About half of all boating fatalities involve alcohol. The United States Coast Guard has estimated the number of nonfatal boating accidents to be sixty-thousand (60,000) or higher, with property damage well over $240,000,000.00 annually.

The Pennsylvania Legislature and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission recognize alcohol as a significant problem on the water. Research shows that four (4) hours of exposure to noise, vibration, sun, glare, wind, and other motion on water produces a kind of fatigue, or “boater’s hypnosis” which slows reaction time, almost as much as if you were legally drunk. Adding alcohol to boating stress factors intensifies the affect, and each drink multiplies accident risk. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, in its boating handbook, admonishes boaters that alcohol is a depressant and affects balance, vision and coordination. Reduced judgment, resulting in higher risk taking, is another common symptom.

Operating a boat in an impaired condition from drinking is every bit or more dangerous than operating a vehicle in the same condition. There are differences, however, between the Driving Under The Influence (DUI) Laws and the Boating Under Influence (BUI) Statutes. In some ways, the BUI Laws are less  restrictive than the DUI Laws. For example, according to the Motor Vehicle Code, it is illegal, subject to certain exceptions, for an individual who is an operator or an occupant of a motor vehicle, to possess an opened alcoholic beverage container or consume an alcoholic beverage while the motor vehicle is located on a highway. There is no comparable law in the Boating Code.

Also, last year sweeping changes to the Pennsylvania DUI Statute reduced the amount of alcohol  absorbed in the blood necessary for establishing DUI. Greater fines and imprisonment were imposed, depending on the degree of blood alcohol content (bac). (See DUI .. It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Crime, by Harry F. White, II, Esq., Meadville Tribune, January 2, 2005). The Legislature has not made corresponding changes to the Pennsylvania BUI Law.

The penalty for BUI is nevertheless, harsh and if commonsense responsibility is not enough, the statutory penalties for BUI should be a deterrent to boating under the influence. The BUI Law provides that a blood alcohol content (bac) of .10% or greater (.02% or greater for a minor) is prima facie evidence that the boat operator was under the influence. Pre-arrest breath tests can be used by officers to determine the probability that a boat operator is under the influence. If found operating a watercraft under the influence, the operator will be charged with a misdemeanor of the second degree. The penalties for a second degree misdemeanor is a fine of not less than $500.00 or more than $7,500.00, or imprisonment not exceeding two (2) years or both. A first time offender must serve a minimum prison term of forty-eight (48) consecutive hours. A second time offender must serve a minimum thirty (30) day sentence. A third time offender will receive a fine of not less than $2,500.00 or more than $10,000.00, and a prison term of not less than ninety (90) days. DUI and BUI violations count together as convictions for purposes of sentencing.

While a conviction of operating a watercraft under the influence of alcohol will not result in a suspension of an individual’s drivers license and privilege to operate a motor vehicle, it does result in a loss of boating privileges for up to one (1) year.

Another sobering fact is that if, as a result of an operator’s intoxication he or she accidentally and unintentionally causes the death of another person, if found guilty, he or she will be required to serve a minimum term of imprisonment of not less than three (3) years and up to seven (7) years.

Be a responsible boater. Don’t risk turning fun into tragedy by operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol. Have a great summer. I hope to see you on the water.

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