Michiganders were not thinking about boating last December, but the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder were.
Right after Christmas, Snyder approved amendments to the Marine Safety Act that lowered the blood alcohol content limit from .10 to .08, bringing “drunk boating” limits in line with “drunk driving” limits.
If you are under the age of 21, the limit is .02, and any alcohol in your system (other than alcohol consumed as part of a religious service) is a violation. No matter what your age, you may not operate a motorboat if you have any amount of a controlled substance, including marijuana, in your body. The new limits became effective March 31.
The new limit should make a difference in boating safety. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that the total number of boating accidents in Michigan has generally been dropping. When it comes to operation of the vessel, the primary contributing factor of accidents last year was “operator inattention.” Alcohol use was in fifth place, just behind excessive speed. But the primary contributing factor of boating accident deaths last year was alcohol use.
If the legislation has any impact on alcohol use in boating it will reduce the risk of fatal boating accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has concluded that the change in drunk-driving limits had that effect. But, as was the case with drunk driving, drunk boating will not go away just because the blood alcohol limit drops. Education is a critical element of safe boating. Sgt. Russ Larson of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department Marine Unit acknowledges that “the best way to keep our lakes safe is to educate the public on the laws and safety rules that apply.” That sentiment is echoed by the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit: “Enforcement continues to be a component of marine safety, but education and compliance will create a safe and enjoyable boating environment.”
Be educated, be safe and keep the new limits in mind as you put the boat in the water this summer. Also, remember that the law applies to the operation of a “motorboat,” which is defined very broadly. Every watercraft that can be used as a means of transportation on water is a “vessel,” and every vessel that is propelled wholly or in part by machinery is a motorboat. If you have had a drink, don’t leave the dock. Then you are not operating your motorboat. The limits apply while the vessel is underway, not when it is docked, at anchor, idle, or otherwise secured. And leave the kids out of it. Operating your motorboat above the limits when there is a person under the age of 16 in the boat constitutes an additional separate offense.