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Drinking, Boating and the Law

Are boating and alcohol compatible? Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in the U.S. Many people who use it are not aware of its dangers. Alcohol affects judgment, balance and vision. All of these faculties are integral components to boat operation. If any of the senses is affected, the likelihood of a boating accident increases. When mixing unpredictable water conditions, reckless behavior and alcohol, the combination is often tragic.

May I drink in my boat?

This answer depends on several variables including where you boat, how much you drink and other laws that pertain to alcohol. Alcohol is prohibited on land and water at all Pennsylvania state parks, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property and on many other waterways in the Commonwealth. Check with the local authorities before bringing alcohol into an area. In some places it is legal to drink on a boat. However, laws such as public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and underage drinking apply both to the operator and the passengers.

It is illegal to operate a watercraft on all the waters of the Commonwealth while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.

How is my judgment affected?

Alcohol reduces the brain's ability to integrate information from the five senses. Alcohol slows the messages to and from the brain. After a drink or two, you may think you are a better boater, but you may fail to detect hazards and maintenance problems. Your response time to these problems is also slowed. Alcohol increases risk-taking and causes daredevil behavior in some people. It leads us to believe that we can do things beyond our capability. This behavior is common among alcohol users, and when it occurs on the waterways, the consequences are often fatal.

Is my balance affected?

According to laboratory studies, balance is one of the first things impaired by alcohol consumption. Even a small amount of alcohol causes a lack of stability. You may not notice a decrease in your balancing ability, but your inner ear and body do. Most boating fatalities in Pennsylvania are caused by capsized boats and falls overboard. An intoxicated person in dark, murky water might swim downward, unable to find the surface. Even the strongest swimmer impaired by alcohol might be unable to react properly when pitched unexpectedly into the water.

What is meant by "under the influence"?

If chemical testing shows that the amount of alcohol by weight in the blood of a person is 0.08 percent or more, the person is under the influence as defined by law. However, if the amount of alcohol by weight in the blood is in excess of 0.05 percent but less than 0.08 percent, that fact may be considered with other competent evidence in determining whether the person was or was not under the influence of alcohol.

How many drinks will make me feel intoxicated?

You may be surprised how few drinks it takes to weaken your boat operating ability and judgment. Alcohol has varying visible effects on people. Some will slur words and stagger. Others may exhibit no signs. However, both people may be intoxicated and their abilities may be impaired. Alcohol effects vary with each individual according to food consumption, body weight, chemical makeup, personal drinking history and how fast a person consumes alcohol. These effects are intensified by additional stressors on the water, which include sun glare, boat vibrations, wind, waves, current and noise levels.

Is beer less intoxicating than whiskey?

A bottle of beer or a glass of wine has about the same amount of ethyl alcohol as one ounce of gin, scotch or whiskey. The amount of alcohol a person drinks, not the kind of beverage, determines how intoxicated that person is.

Does alcohol cause tunnel vision?

Although alcohol doesn't directly affect the eyes and vision, the ability to perceive what is seen may become distorted because alcohol slows the messages to and from the brain. Concentration is also decreased, which causes many people to focus only on what's directly in front of them.

Does alcohol warm a cold person?

No. The body cools faster when alcohol is introduced into the system. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels, increasing heat loss. A few drinks can shorten survival time if a boater is unexpectedly immersed in cold water.

What is a quick way to sober up?

There is no quick way. A cup of hot coffee or a cold shower will only make a drunk wet and wide awake. It takes approximately one hour for a drink (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or one ounce of hard liquor) to leave the body of an average-sized person. A person could remain intoxicated for hours or even the next day after drinking.

How will the law enforcement officer test me to determine if I am under the influence?

A Waterways Conservation Officer, having reasonable suspicion to believe a person is operating or in actual physical control of the movement of a watercraft while under the influence of alcohol, may request that person to submit to a preliminary breath test. This test may be administered before arrest. Other field sobriety tests have been developed and are approved for this purpose.

Does the law enforcement officer require my permission to test my blood alcohol content?

Any person who operates or is in actual physical control of the movement of the watercraft, upon, in or through the waters of the Commonwealth shall be determined to have given consent to one or more chemical tests of breath, blood or urine for the purpose of determining the alcohol content of blood or the presence of a controlled substance. The Waterways Conservation Officer must have reasonable grounds to believe that the person has been operating or has been in actual physical control of the movement of the watercraft. If any person placed under arrest for operating a watercraft under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance is requested to submit to chemical testing and refuses, the test shall not be conducted. But the Commission shall suspend the boating privileges of the person for a period of 12 months. In addition to suspending boating privileges for one year, the fact that the defendant refused to submit to chemical testing may be introduced in evidence along with the other testimony concerning the circumstances of the refusal.

What happens if I am caught?

Operation of a watercraft while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance can lead to fines and/or imprisonment, plus the loss of boating privileges. Operating a watercraft under the influence may also violate other laws. These could include prohibitions against reckless or negligent operation of boats, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and under-age drinking.

Why not boat safely?

Safe boating operation requires a clear head, steady hand and observant eye. Alcohol diminishes these necessary ingredients for a safe and pleasurable day on the water. If you think enough of friends and loved ones' lives to stop them from driving a car after having too much to drink, why not do the same when you're on the water? Impaired skippers not only endanger their lives and their passengers' lives, but they can also ruin the lives of other boaters.

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