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Think before you drink on the water

TERRY TOMALIN
Published May 30, 2004

TAMPA - If you are having a Memorial Day party on the water, be sure to bring a designated driver.

"We will be out in force," said Daryl Amerson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Division of Law Enforcement. "We will be making a concentrated effort to stop boaters under the influence of drugs and alcohol."

The state has formed a local BUI (boating under the influence) task force of five specially trained officers and a mobile field lab that can test suspected drunken drivers at area boat ramps.

"We call it SWAMP and that stands for Safe Waterways Alcohol Monitoring Program," Amerson said. "It is a problem that we take very seriously."

Recently released statistics show in 2003 about one of every three of Florida's 64 boating deaths was alcohol related.

"The standards for boating under the influence are the same as those for driving a motor vehicle under the influence on the highway," Amerson said. "The only difference is that in a boat, you are allowed to have an open container."

While it is legal for the driver of a vessel to drink alcohol, the state presumes a driver is impaired at .08 or higher.

"Play it safe and have a designated driver," Amerson said. "You may think you are fine, but because you are out in the sun, your alcohol tolerance may change."

At this year's Gasparilla in Tampa, an event held in less than ideal weather, FWC officers had hoped to equal the previous year's record of 16 BUI arrests.

"We were out there for seven hours and made 28 arrests," Amerson said. "We couldn't believe the numbers. That just shows you what kind of problem we have."

Last year, FWC officers made 438 BUI arrests statewide, according to Richard Moore of the commission's office of boating safety. There are about 50,000 driving under the influence arrests on Florida roadways each year.

"There are more people in Florida and as a result more people on the water," Moore said. "We are only going to see that number go up."

Officers in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have targeted BUIs since the first of the year and arrests are up.

"We have made 70 arrests," Amerson said. "That is a lot of BUIs."

Amerson said the operator of a boat is more likely to become impaired quicker than the driver of a car (drink for drink) because of the sun, wave action and vibrations of the boat.

"The first thing they lose is their judgment," he said. "And on the water, they can be particularly deadly."

Most boaters also have less time in a boat than they do in a car, which means the operating skill level isn't always where it should be. Statistics show that an operator with an alcohol level of .10 percent is 10 times more likely to die in a boating accident than an operator with a blood alcohol concentration of zero.

How many drinks are too many? A 180-pound man who consumes four drinks is likely to exceed .08, according the U.S. Coast Guard's Office of Boating Safety.

Some tips to avoid BUI, according to the U.S. Coast Guard:

Drink plenty of water and take along a variety of non-alcoholic drinks.

Bring an assortment of food and snacks.

Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing to keep from getting overheated.

Limit your time on the water (and in the sun) to avoid fatigue.

For more information on BUI, go to www.uscgboating.org or floridaconservation.org.

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