Buoys and BUI: Boating Under the Influence

As boating season nears us, it is important that boaters remember marine traffic laws in order to avoid accidents and injuries. Law enforcement officials routinely patrol waterways with the hopes of stopping and arresting people for boating while intoxicated the same as they could if they were driving a vehicle on a traditional road.

Every state has a set of driving under the influence (DUI) laws to help keep drivers, passengers, and the community safe. Many people, however, don’t realize that DUI laws apply to more than cars and trucks. In fact, today, every state and the federal government have laws against Boating Under the Influence (‘BUI’). These boating under the influence laws allow officers to stop boats and other watercraft to make sure that the operators and their passengers are sober and safe enough to be allowed on the water.

A stark rise in alcohol and drug-related boating injuries and fatalities prompted state legislatures to enact BUI laws. More than half of all boating accidents involve some level of alcohol or drug consumption, and alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, according to the Insurance Information Institute and the U.S. Guard.

The Basics of a BUI

For the same reasons that the legislature enacted driving under the influence laws, BUI regulations exist to hopefully minimize the possibility that a person will operate a boat or watercraft while drunk or under the influence of narcotics. The U.S. Coast Guard warns that “alcohol is more hazardous on water than on land.” Perhaps they’re correct. There are no lanes, few signs, and just open water.

Law enforcement authorities can pull a boater over, just like a driver on the road, if they are suspected of a BUI. Law enforcement officials are also permitted to set up BUI checkpoints on the water, similar to roadside DUI checkpoints, to question boat operators for boating under the influence.

Additionally, boaters face other factors (sometimes referred to as “boater’s fatigue”) that car drivers don’t need to worry, which include heat, sun, noise, wind, and the general effects of being on the water for a long period of time. When alcohol and drugs are also involved, the ability to operate a vessel on the water can be severely affected and become very dangerous.

As you can see, the basics of a BUI are very much like a DUI, possibly even more dangerous.

BUI: Elements of the Offense

Most state laws define crimes of drunk boating as follows: operating a watercraft on a body of water while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Some state laws also provide a per se BUI offense when a BAC is over a certain amount. Other water related laws apply as well—for instance, in California, people younger than 21 years-old with BAC levels of at least .01 percent cannot even use water skis.

More specifically, California’s BUI law makes it a crime to operate a water “vessel” or a “similar device” while under the influence of alcohol, or drugs, or both, or with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more.

The Harbors and Navigations Code also provides a zero tolerance for aquaplanes and water skis.

Consequences of a BUI Conviction

Convictions for boating under the influence can have severe consequences. These consequences are due in part to the rise in boating injuries and fatalities. In addition to a possible criminal conviction, boat operators can have their boating licenses suspended or revoked. It is also common for your driver’s license to be affected by a BUI conviction. Aggravating circumstances, such as repeat offenses or boating with minors on board, could face higher consequences. However, a standard BUI in California are similar to those for a California DUI; up to six months in jail, up to $1,000 in fines and fees, and a California DUI program.

Boating Safety Tips

To avoid situations that could affect not only your own rights and safety, but that of friends, family, and others on the water, boaters should be cognizant of the following:

  • Exercise increased caution during major holiday weekends: Holiday weekends are usually considered the deadliest weekends for accidents involving alcohol, both on the water and on the road.
  • Know your local boating regulations: If you travel to another state, understand what the local regulations say about both open containers and BUI laws.
  • Make sure that you and all passengers on the boat wear life vests: Life vests, in general are always a good idea. Many boating deaths and accidents could have been avoided operators and their passengers had worn their life vests.

Additional tips to avoiding a BUI include:

  • Take along a variety of non-alcoholic drinks. Having no alcohol while aboard is the safest way to enjoy the water;
  • Bring food and snacks;
  • Stay cool and hydrated;
  • Plan to limit your trip to a reasonable time to avoid fatigue.
  • If you dock somewhere and drink alcohol, wait a reasonable time before operating your boat.

Of course, the only failsafe way to avoid a BUI is to avoid alcohol altogether before and while operating a boat, or any vessel for that matter.

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