Guest Columnist

Keep Iowa waterways safe this boating season

The shoreline of the Coralville Lake sits exposed near the Mehaffey Bridge boat ramp Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 between North Liberty and Solon. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
The shoreline of the Coralville Lake sits exposed near the Mehaffey Bridge boat ramp Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 between North Liberty and Solon. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

Unbeknown to many, alcohol is widely recognized as “the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents,” according to the Coast Guard. As the weather gets nicer and our lakes become prime for boating and water sports, we should always remember these activities can turn tragic.

It would be hard to understate the impact of alcohol use on boating. BoatUS Foundation, an organization dedicated to safe boating, reports nearly 50 percent of all boating accidents involve alcohol in some capacity. Alcohol impairs our judgment, leading to poor decision making and risky choices. Our reaction time is also slowed, and our vision becomes diminished. This would make even the most capable operator susceptible to mistakes and oversights that can quickly turn dangerous.

Why is it that many continue to boat and use alcohol? One possible explanation would be the prevailing myths regarding its use. One popular myth tells us that alcohol is a good way to warm up, should the wind turn cold. While alcohol acts to dilate your blood vessels and thus make you feel warmer, your body’s internal thermostat still remains susceptible to the cold and conditions such as hypothermia. Additionally, many believe alcohol’s impairment effects can be offset with caffeine, such as in coffee or an energy drink. This may make the person feel more awake and alert, but only exacerbates the impairment effects.

The dangers of alcohol have not gone unnoticed to authorities patrolling our waterways. Boating under the influence laws exist in all states and at the federal level, designed much the same way as impaired driving laws. In Iowa, the intoxicated level for boating is the same as driving, a .08 blood alcohol level. It’s important to note that impairment can take place even before .08. A 180-pound man can, on average, reach, 08 after four standard drinks, defined roughly as a 12-ounce can of beer, four ounces of wine or one ounce of liquor.

What should boaters do? If you plan to operate a boat, the best advice is to refrain from drinking alcohol. Many think they can judge their level of impairment, but that’s never advisable. Drinking alcohol can be low-risk for those who don’t drive or operate a boat, provided they don’t consumer more than three drinks, stay hydrated, and have food in their system. Following these guidelines can keep boating safe.

• Jeffrey Meyers is a certified prevention specialist with the Area Substance Abuse Council.

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