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Impaired Boating on the Rise in Colorado

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A man drinks a beer while operating a motorboat.

As many as 1,000 U.S. deaths annually are the result of impaired boating.

Boating under the influence is on the rise at Colorado’s Boyd Lake State Park, according to So far this year, there have been four arrests for impaired boating, and the busy Labor Day weekend still remains; by contrast, there were a total of four such arrests between 2010 and 2014.

Boating under the influence, or BUI, is responsible for 1,000 deaths across the nation each year. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, recreational boating accidents come in second only to car accidents in the number of transportation fatalities annually.

DUI and BUI: What’s the Difference?

Unlike driving under the influence, or DUI, which is found in Colorado traffic code, boating under the influence, or BUI, is codified in the Parks and Wildlife section of Colorado law. Because BUI is not found in the traffic code, the Colorado Department of Revenue/Department of Motor Vehicles does not have jurisdiction over BUI as it does over DUI offenses.

In 2008, Colorado strengthened its BUI laws to mirror the state’s driving under the influence law, with the exception of penalties. Sentences for a first-time BUI offender range from five days to six months in jail, a fine of $100 to $1,000, up to two years of probation, and a mandatory three-month ban from boating in Colorado lakes and reservoirs. A first-time DUI offender in Colorado may face up to one year in jail, a $600–$1,000 fine, up to 96 hours of community service, and an administrative license suspension of up to nine months.

Colorado BUI Law

Many people don’t fully understand that there are laws regulating the operation of motorboats and personal watercraft in Colorado. According to Colorado BUI law:

  • The minimum boat operating age is 16 (except for 14- and 15-year-olds who have an approved operator’s card)
  • Nighttime and careless operation of a boat is prohibited
  • All operators and passengers are required to wear U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jackets
  • Operators must use a lanyard switch

In 2008, the Colorado legislature lowered the per se blood alcohol concentration (BAC) from .10 down to .08, and also eliminated the distinction that only operators of motorboats or sailboats can be arrested and charged with BUI. Now any person operating or in physical control of any vessel, including a kayak, jet ski, canoe, or a raft, can be arrested and charged with boating under the influence.

Additionally, unlike in DUI cases, any owner or operator of a vessel who knowingly lets the craft be operated by someone who is incapable of safely operating it because of impairment can also be charged. This is a very common scenario in BUI cases, as people on a boat will often switch places from the helm to another part of the boat, and vice-versa.

Boats and Alcohol Don’t Mix

Approximately 50 percent of boating accidents are alcohol-related. quotes, David Pilvelait, community relations director for the Boat Owners Association of the U.S., as saying, “A boater who is intoxicated is 10 times more likely to be killed in a boating accident than a boater who is not.”

Image by Joe Goldberg


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