New law cracks down on impaired boating

Photo by Deane Hislop

Photo by Deane Hislop

A new law aimed at improving boating safety in Washington state increases penalties for boating under the influence and gives law enforcement officers greater authority in arresting impaired boaters.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last week and takes effect July 28, makes BUI a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, compared with a previous maximum fine of $1,000. Additionally, boat operators suspected of being impaired can be fined $1,000 for refusing a breath or blood test.

The law, which also requires boat rental companies to provide specific safety equipment, does not change the legal limit for blood-alcohol content. It remains at .08, the same as for driving. Nor does it prohibit drinking while underway on a boat, which is legal.

But Wade Alonzo, the state’s boating law administrator, said the hope is that the law’s stiffer penalties will prompt boaters to think twice about operating vessels while impaired.

“We’re not telling people don’t drink when you go out,” he said. “We’re saying have a designated boater and be safe.”

Boating fatalities in Washington state are more numerous in winter and spring than in later in the year. Graphics courtesy of Washington State Parks

Boating fatalities in Washington state are more numerous in winter and spring than in later in the year. Graphics courtesy of Washington State Parks

Previously, Alonzo said, Washington’s BUI law was more lenient than those in other states. In Alaska, for example, boaters convicted of BUI can be required to use an ignition interlock breathalyzer device for six months. In Oregon, a BUI conviction can mean a one-year prohibition on operating a boat.

“We wanted the BUI law to be a greater deterrent than it is right now,” he said.

Peter Schrappen, vice chair of the Washington State Boating Safety Advisory Council, said the change was needed.

“If we’re going to take boating safety seriously, it makes sense to bring [the law] in line with other states that have a track record of promoting boating safety,” he said.

Sgt. Jim Robarge of the Mercer Island Police Department said while boaters generally seem aware of blood-alcohol limits, conditions on the water — sun, waves and wind — can make it difficult for them to determine whether they’ve had too much to drink.

Small vessels are more likely to be involved in fatalities than larger ones.

Small vessels are more likely to be involved in fatalities than larger ones.

And awareness about BUI is not at the same level it is for drinking and driving, Robarge said. Alcohol-related driving fatalities have plummeted over the past three decades as awareness and attitudes have changed around drinking and driving, but boating and drinking are still perceived as acceptable “companion activities,” he said.

“I think we’ve done a great job of changing the culture around drinking and driving. I don’t think we’ve seen that around drinking and boating.

“We need to effect that cultural shift and encourage people to have that designated skipper,” Robarge said. “Increasing the penalty is certainly one way to encourage folks to do the right thing and make sure that those who choose not to are punished at a level that makes sense.”

Alonzo said feedback from boaters about the new law has been mixed.

“Some boaters we talk to think this is a great idea. Other people feel like alcohol is part and parcel of boating and that [the law] is infringing on their rights and their ability to have fun,” he said.

Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in boating fatalities, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. And operators of small boats are especially at risk, since those vessels can more easily tip than larger watercraft.

Since the beginning of March, Alonzo said, seven people have died in boating accidents involving small vessels such as kayaks, canoes and 10-foot boats. Alcohol was a factor in at least three of them, and another three are being investigated for possible alcohol involvement.

May is typically the most dangerous month in Washington for boating fatalities, as air temperatures rise and draw out many boaters unprepared for the risks of cold water immersion.

Boating under the influence is arguably more dangerous than drinking and driving, Alonzo said, since impaired boaters who fall overboard risk being hit by a propeller, drowning or succumbing to hypothermia.

Even if impaired boaters make it safely back to shore, there’s a concern that they may then get in a vehicle and drive home.

“We worry that BUI becomes DUI,” Alonzo said.

9 Responses to New law cracks down on impaired boating

  1. Klondiko June 17, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Hang around a boat launch on a nice sunny day and watch the drunks come in. Pretty funny until you realize they get in vehicles and drive. hammer em for the safety of all of us.

  2. keith May 30, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    When people from foreign countries come here they often ask “where is all the freedom you speak of”

  3. keith May 30, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    If law makers could not make money with these ridiculous “laws”. They would not make them. Do you really thing they give a darn about anything but money? They don’t care unless they can put money in their stupid back pockets.

  4. sixthirty May 29, 2013 at 6:57 am #

    I was out on the lake during seafair last year, only for two of the days and I didn’t see a single accident. I was on lake union during the fourth of july with hundreds of boats crammed into lake union. The only accident I witnessed during the entire day was when we were all leaving and some guy went a little bit too close to a shallow spot and wrecked his boat. Mind you, easily over 500 boats trying to get out and everyone was drinking. This coming from a boater who goes out multiple times a week, it seems the state is just trying to get more revenue.

  5. John Sipkens May 25, 2013 at 5:37 pm #

    This has long been needed. Most of the BUIs occur during Sea Fair week. Boating and drink are a common event.. time to change that concept for that safety of all.. Deb how about getting Seattle Times to run a front page on this just before Sea Fair??

    • Deborah Bach May 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

      Hi John. I agree, just before Seafair would be a good time for a story.

      Interestingly, the police officer I spoke with told me that DUI incidents during Seafair have gone down, from about 130 at their peak to around 65 during the four days it’s on. Still a significant number, though.

  6. Derek Rhines May 23, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    Typical Seattle liberal – more laws and more laws. When will you morons wake up and realize your freedoms are being taken away daily.

    • Sam Sullivan May 26, 2013 at 10:33 am #

      As a staunch conservative. I am dismayed at your portrayal of this as a liberal issue. One of governments primary duties is to protect public safety. I do not support laws on top of laws most of which are not enforced but this is an important public safety issue.

      There are way too many people out there who still think its a great idea to drink too much and operate a vessel. It’s not OK and if they choose to do it I for one want them punished. This change in an existing law seems well thought out and reasonable. Heck you can still drink on your boat. You just have to do it safely and have a sober driver.

  7. Sean Munger May 21, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    So true, and glad for the stiffer penalties.
    Boating is serious business. I’m not for more governance or rules, yet because there are those that don’t take these issues seriously it’s important to make that penalty tougher for them.
    I guarantee that there will still be those that scoff at the law, and will protest when they get busted for being irresponsible, but that IS what they are!
    SV Beulah Mae

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