BUI: Boating Under the Influence

Marylanders are well known for our love of the water, and all of the activities that go along with it. The Chesapeake Bay is one of the state’s greatest treasures, and thanks to it fishing and boating are one of the area’s great traditions.

Nothing may typify warm weather in Maryland quite like putting the boat in the water, dropping in a crab trap, and popping the top on a “Natty Boh.” And while there may not be a better place to have a few beers, many residents do not realize that boats are legally classified as motor vehicles making their operators subject to the Maryland DUI laws.

The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at which Maryland’s DUI laws presume a driver to be impaired is 0.08% or higher. At 0.06%-0.07% there is no presumption either way, though sometimes charges are still brought.    Just as you can be charged with driving under the influence (DUI), you can be charged with boating under the influence (BUI) if you have an illegal amount of alcohol in your system.

Maryland boaters actually have less protection when it comes to boating under the influence.  While the law requires police officers to have a specific reason for stopping a vehicle suspected of being operated under the influence, the Maryland Natural Resources Police Department and US Coast Guard are authorized to search your boat at any time without a warrant or without probable cause.

During a boat inspection, officers may ask you to perform a Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) to determine whether you are impaired.  Many marine officers adopted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s SFSTs for use on waterways.

The problem is that there are many scenarios in which the officer could mistake you for being intoxicated.  Steering in a boat can often be delayed leaving less margin for error.  If you forget your sunglasses and your sunscreen wears off, a day on the boat can leave you with bloodshot eyes and a flushed face.

Furthermore the majority of the SFSTs are based on the assessment of motor skills linked to one’s vestibular sense of balance which is not always a reliable measure when you’re on a rocking boat or a crooked pier.

The US Coast Guard created several new field sobriety tests specially designed for administering while on boats and waterways.

A BUI will not affect your driving privileges but it could lead to the permanent loss of your boating license. In addition, you may be fined up to $1,000 and face up to a one-year jail sentence if you are found guilty of boating under the influence.

Perhaps what is worse than the fines and legal consequences that come with a BUI, is the endangerment of people’s safety.

There was a boating crash in late August of 2012 that people of Maryland will long remember. Maryland Delegate Don Dwyer (R) was driving full speed when he crashed his 18.5-foot Bayliner Runabout head on with the “Baja” on the Magothy River causing it to sink.  The accident resulted in Mr. Dwyer severely injuring himself, and another adult and four children who were enjoying the afternoon boating with their grandfather.

Delegate Dwyer stated that his blood alcohol concentration at the time was 0.2%, over twice the legal limit.  Mr. Dwyer naturally no longer serves on the committee that handles legislation regarding drunk driving and boating. He faces trial in May 2013.

Fortunately no one was killed.  This story reminds us of the importance of practicing safety at all times on the water whether you are the driver of the boat or a passenger.  Even though boating is a recreational activity and many people partake in drinking to enhance their recreational experience, we must all remember that we have a responsibility to the law and to the safety of ourselves and others whenever we get behind a wheel, whether it is in a car or on a boat.

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