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Alcohol and Controlled Substances
Most boating accidents involve the use of alcohol and one-third of all boating fatalities are alcohol related. It is illegal to operate a boat, or to permit others to do so, while under the influence of alcohol, narcotics, or barbiturates.
Penalties are severe and could include fines up to $5000, imprisonment of up to one year, non-paid public service work, and mandatory substance-abuse counseling. If an operator under the influence kills or seriously injures another person, the penalty can be up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5000
Some states have additional penalties, and the legal limit varies by state, so check your state laws for details.
Alcohol is a stressor and can decrease a person’s ability to handle a boat in many ways. As a depressant, alcohol goes straight to the nerves, blood stream, and the brain. As recreational boaters, it is hard enough to remember all the rules, regulations, boat handling techniques, etc. while lucid. A few beers to quench the thirst in a rapidly dehydrating body and the following happens:
- Eroding sense of balance - Most boating deaths result from falling out of a small open boat, without a PFD, whether it capsizes or not.
- Vision fades - Because of the sun and reflection of light, objects on the water can be hazy and difficult to see. Color perception and peripheral vision deteriorate and, at night, depth perception decreases. You can imagine what happens if you can’t distinguish between the red and green markers or red and green lights of an oncoming vessel at night.
- Coordination suffers - Should a person fall into the water, he or she may have trouble just floating, let alone grasping onto a life ring or throwable device. Add the shock of the cold water and the risk of cramping and drowning is increased significantly.
- Surface blood vessels dilate - Blood vessels on the surface of the skin dilate to increase the rate of body heat loss while in the sun. If, while these vessels are dilated, you fall overboard into cold water, hypothermia sets in quickly. This further reduces your decision-making abilities.
- Judgment is impaired - One of the things that drinking tends to do is to make lose your judgment. After a drink or two, people tend to become relaxed and are more likely to perform dangerous acts that they might not do if not under the influence. Because their judgment is impaired, they may not even realize they are doing something dangerous. This, combined with the other debilitating symptoms previously covered, spells disaster.
- Environmental stressors - Natural stressors such as exposure to sun, glare, wind, noise, vibration, and motion on the water produces "boater’s hypnosis" or fatigue. This in itself reduces reaction time almost as much as being under the influence. Adding alcohol to these environmental stressors intensifies their effects.
Passengers who are drinking should be especially encouraged to wear life jackets.
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