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State Approaches to Boating Under the Influence

posted on Wed, Oct 12 2016 4:16 pm by Kerri McGowan Lowrey

Boating operators under the influence of alcohol or drugs cause hundreds of injuries and deaths every year. This August, a Colorado woman was severely injured when she was struck by the propeller of a boat driven by a man with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.14, nearly double the level for intoxication under Colorado law. In July, a Southern California man died after being struck by a boat while wakeboarding; the driver of the boat was later found to have a BAC more than twice the legal limit.  

Drunk driving remains a serious public health problem and the dangers of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol are well appreciated by the public. However, recreational boating enthusiasts may be less cognizant of the danger. Boaters are often enjoying the lake or ocean with friends or family, and such gatherings often involve drinking. According to numerous studies, alcohol use may actually be more hazardous on the water than on dry land,because being on the water forces the brain to work overtime at adapting the body’s equilibrium.The addition of alcohol or drugs further challenges the body’s sensory perception abilities.Sun, wind, noise, vibration, and motion can intensify the effects of alcohol and drugs, thereby drastically reducing an operator’s vision, balance, coordination, judgment and reaction time.

In the United States, alcohol is the most prominent contributing factor to fatal boating accidents and is the fifth most cited cause for all boating accidents. In 2014 alone, alcohol-related boating accidents resulted in 108 deaths, with an additional 7 deaths from other intoxicating drugs.  Operation Dry Water reported that local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies around the United States made 278 BUI arrests during a three-day weekend in 2015.

Each state and the District of Columbia have passed laws on boating under the influence. These laws vary as to the severity of the penalties; permissible BAC levels; whether bodily harm ensued or minors were involved; and even on the definition of watercraft. The unique nature of waterways presents not only an increased danger for those consuming alcohol, but also creates significant challenges and barriers for enforcement, such as ill-defined jurisdictional borders; federal versus state enforcement authority; and logistical complications, including impounding of the vessel. States have implemented a variety of solutions to these challenges from enforcement compacts with other jurisdictions to penalty escalation for repeat offenders.

The Network’s Eastern Region has prepared a compilation of state BUI laws and provisions, as well as a document describing the BUI policy landscape across the country. Contact the Eastern Region for more information on BUI law provisions.



This post was prepared by Kerri McGowan Lowrey, Deputy Director of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region at the University of Maryland Frances King Carey School of Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.


Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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