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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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Alcohol and water don't mix

Alcohol impairs judgement on the water even more than on land.

William G. Engfer

© Illustration by ClickArt

It's a Saturday evening in July and you are traveling across a beautiful lake after a full day on the water. Suddenly, a boat without running lights appears out of the darkness just off your bow. Before you can react there is a tremendous crash, and the boat slams into yours as you lose consciousness.

Such horrible accidents are not common, but when they do occur, it's likely the other operator was under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Some boaters believe waterways are the last frontier where they can drink and drive a vehicle. Research shows just four hours of exposure to sun, glare, wind, noise and rocky waves fatigues boat operators and slows their reaction times almost as much as if they were legally drunk. Add alcohol to that mix, and the risk of accidents increases dramatically.

A National Transportation Safety Board study concluded it takes only a third as much alcohol to impair a boater's balance, judgment and coordination, so having two beers on the water can impair your abilities as much as drinking a six-pack at a backyard barbecue. Many boaters who want to drink have the good sense to stay off the water or let another trained boater drive.

Intoxicated passengers are also a threat in boats. Drunken passengers can lurch and shift suddenly in the boat, push people overboard, fall overboard, throw things or otherwise distract the driver. Wisconsin law allows law enforcement staff to test the blood alcohol of boat operators, but passengers cannot be tested, so our conclusions on intoxicated passengers are based on anecdotes and our observations.

State and local boat patrols have taken a serious approach to targeting areas where on-water alcohol and drug use is a problem. We both appreciate the information and react when citizens complain of drunken boating in their area. We combine that information with statistics of where accidents have occurred in the past and where we have made arrests of boaters who were operating under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Where it's warranted, we will set up checkpoints with as many as eight crews of law enforcement officers on land and water. Checkpoints are set up on a nondiscriminatory basis – we don't just try to pinpoint who "looks" drunk. Rather, we decide beforehand to contact every third boat, or other frequency.

Safety checkpoints

We set up in a safe area where boats can be stopped without impeding traffic and near a spot where boats can be brought safely to shore. You might think checkpoints are set up just offshore of a restaurant, tavern or marina where alcohol can be purchased. Actually, we've found the "problem" areas are more often associated with places and times that prompt boaters to carry alcohol along with them – near islands, picnic sites and on busy weekends and holidays. Many restaurants and taverns now actively promote designated boat driver programs to reduce problems near their businesses and consider the welfare of their customers and other boaters. Support from businesses helps promote safe boating throughout a community.

The average on-water check takes about three minutes. We ask the skipper a few questions and conduct a short safety check. The law enforcement officer makes a series of observations before deciding if there is sufficient reason to suspect an operator is impaired by alcohol or drug use. When we observe boaters from a distance, we look for clues like reckless driving, irresponsible riding, flagrant drinking, speeding through "no wake" zones, loud behavior, improper boat lighting and reports from witnesses of dangerous or offensive behavior.

If the officer concludes there is a likelihood the boat operator is impaired, we use a variety of field sobriety tests and we carry a portable intoxilizer – a breath analysis device – that provides an additional clue before blood alcohol and urine tests are taken.

A few years ago, 80 to 90 percent of our fatal boating accidents were attributed to boat operators under the influence of alcohol. Now the figure has dropped to 25-30 percent. People are getting the message, but we're aiming to further decrease that percentage. Conservation wardens meet with and mail materials to school groups, civic groups, lake associations and boating enthusiasts to prevent boating and alcohol/drug problems.

We are serious about reducing the number of boaters who operate watercraft while impaired by drugs and alcohol. With 1.5 million boaters using our waterways each year, we must all remain sober operators to keep enjoyable recreation from becoming family and community tragedies.

William G Engfer administers DNR's boating law and education programs.