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.”
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.
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.