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Boating Under the Influence Accidents

According to the US Coast Guard, almost half of boating accidents stem from boating under the influence. Like driving a car under the influence (DUI), it is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Boating while impaired could lead to varying punishments, including jail time, significant fines, and revocation of their boating driver’s license. Nearly all boating accidents occur through someone’s negligence, who may be facing fines and penalties.

Boating and Being Under the Influence

Were you injured in a boat accident caused by an impaired boater? Contact one of the experienced personal injury lawyers at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers, LLC.

Call our boat accident lawyers at (888) 424-5757 or fill out this online contact form for a free consultation today. All confidential or sensitive information you share with our legal team about your car accident remains private through an attorney-client relationship.

What Is Considered Boating Under the Influence?

Driving under the influence (DUI) involves prescription medications, illegal drugs or alcohol. All states consider it a criminal driving offense.

Boating under the influence (BUI), on the other hand, is defined as operating any boat, sailboat, or personal watercraft while intoxicated. Similar to DUI, BUI is illegal in all 50 states.

Drinking over the legal blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% constitutes a DUI while boating or operating a car, truck, motorcycle or other moving vehicle. Law enforcement officers with reasonable suspicion of BUI can ask boat operators to perform blood alcohol, urine, or breathalyzer test.

Why Is BUI Dangerous?

Alcohol consumption results in many physical effects that reduce the operator and passengers' safety while driving, whether on the road or on water. When a boater consumes alcohol, even just a single drink, the following can happen:

  • Physical abilities are impaired, resulting in a lack of coordination, decreased reaction time, and balance problems.
  • Cognitive abilities are affected, making it difficult to process information and make good choices.
  • Vision deteriorates, causing decreased peripheral vision, poor night vision, reduced depth perception, and poor focus.
  • Alcohol warms the body, which may prevent a person in cold water from getting back on the boat before hypothermia occurs.
  • Inner ear disturbances can make it difficult for a person who falls overboard to distinguish between up and down.

Boating Stressors

Furthermore, boat operators undergo boating stressors that make BUI even more dangerous than driving while intoxicated. These include:

  • Noise
  • Vibration
  • Sun glare
  • Wind
  • Waves

Research shows that four hours of exposure to these stressors can lead to a “boater’s hypnosis,” a kind of fatigue that slows down reaction time as if drunk. Drinking or doing drugs while under a boater’s hypnosis increases the effects of intoxication, which, in turn, multiplies an accident risk.

Recreational Boating Fatalities

The person at fault for a boating accident while under the influence could face fines or lose their license. In 2020, the US Coast Guard reported 767 recreational boating fatalities and 3,191 injuries from 5,265 accidents.

Drunk boating was found as the leading cause of boat-related fatalities. It was listed as the number one factor in 18% of deaths where the primary cause was known.

So, not only is the person at fault for causing an accident risking paying hefty fines and going to jail, but they are also endangering the lives of others around others when boating under the influence.

The Dangers of Boating Under the Influence

Just like DUI, boating under the influence dramatically increases the risk of injuries and even death. Drinking while operating a watercraft can lead to:


The U.S. Coast Guard lists collisions as the leading cause of boat-related fatalities. Drinking or doing drugs while operating a boat decreases many of physical abilities, which can make it difficult to avoid stationary objects and other boats.

Falling Overboard

Drugs and alcohol diminish balance, increasing the risk of falling overboard. Moreover, being intoxicated can make it difficult or impossible to keep afloat without a life jacket.

Poor Judgement of Environmental Dangers

Alcohol impairs one’s judgment. If drunk or high, the boat operator may be less likely to make good decisions about environmental hazards, such as inclement weather, high seas, winds, or dangerous sea creatures.

Poor Reaction to Emergencies

Intoxicated boaters are less likely to react appropriately to emergencies, such as fires, capsizing, a passenger falling overboard, etc., making the situation even more dangerous.

Legal Consequences of BUI

It is prohibited to operate any watercraft while under the influence of drugs or alcohol in Illinois. According to BUI laws, “watercraft” includes most motorized and non-motorized water vehicles, including boats, canoes, sailboats, water skis, and foreign vessels that sail on US waterways.

Generally, a boat operator can be charged with a BUI for operating a vessel while:

  • Impaired by drugs, alcohol, or a combination of drugs and alcohol to a "degree which renders such person incapable of safely" operating the vessel asa sober person would
  • Having a concentration of five nanograms or more of THC per milliliter of blood or ten nanograms or more of THC per milliliter of other bodily substance
  • Having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or greater.

If the person at fault for the accident had a blood alcohol concentration under 0.05%, it is presumed that they were not under the influence. However, the prosecutor can point to other facts that can lead to conviction, such as their physical appearance (unsteady gait, red eyes, slurred speech, etc.) and their field sobriety test performance.

A blood alcohol concentration between 0.05% and 0.08% may indicate that they were under the influence if presented with other compelling evidence.


In waters that are overseen only by the states, the states can enforce their own BUI statutes. In waters that are under U.S. jurisdiction, there is coexisting jurisdiction. If the boat operator is arrested under federal law in these waters, the Coast Guard will request state police to take them into custody.

Illinois BUI Penalties

The U.S. Coast Guard and every state have strict penalties for violating BUI laws. Penalties can include hefty fines, jail time, and suspension or revocation of one’s privilege to operate a boat and driver’s license.

The legal consequences of operating a water vessel while intoxicated vary from case to case. But in general, the penalties in Illinois are:

  • First offense: A first-offense BUI is a class A misdemeanor and comes with hefty fines up to $2,600 and 364 days in jail.
  • Second offense: An offender with at least one prior BUI conviction faces a class 4 felony, carrying hefty fines up to $25,000 and three years in prison.
  • BUI involving serious injury: If the BUI results in “great bodily harm” or “permanent disability or disfigurement” to another individual, the offense becomes a class 4 felony, carrying large fines up to $25,000 and three years in prison.
  • BUI involving death: If the boating under the influence causes the death of another person, the offense becomes a class 2 felony, which carries large fines up to $25,000 and three to 14 years in prison.
  • BUI on suspended operator’s privilege: If a boat operator gets a BUI while their boater’s privilege is suspended due to another BUI-related offense, the offense will be a class 4 felony, carrying large fines up to $25,000 and three years prison time.
  • BUI involves a minor under 16 years old: For any BUI involving passengers under 16 years old, the boat operator faces a minimum fine of $500 and a mandatory 5-day community service program.

Suspension of Operator’s Privilege

Aside from facing large fines and jail time, violating BUI laws can result in the suspension of an operator’s privilege to operate a watercraft for transport, fishing, or recreation. Certain misdemeanors will come with a one-year suspension in Illinois, while felony BUIs result in a three-year suspension.

Chemical Test Refusal

Should a law enforcement officer have reasonable cause to believe that someone was operating a mechanically-propelled boat, water ski, or a similar device while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or drug, they may request a chemical test (e.g., breath, blood alcohol, or urine test).

The person at fault for the accident can refuse a chemical test. However, if they are later convicted of boating under the influence, the judge may impose a more significant fine or longer jail time.

Boat Accident Lawsuit

Impaired boat operators may also face a boat accident lawsuit with hefty fines and jail time. If alcohol use resulted in an accident involving another boat, the other party might file suit for:

  • Property damage: The impaired boat operator may be held liable for paying for the repair and replacement of the other party’s vessel.
  • Medical bills: If the accident results in the other party's injury, they may also be responsible for paying their medical fees, including anticipated medical bills for future treatment.
  • Lost income: If the other party cannot work while recovering from their injury, the damages can include lost income, including bonuses and commissions.

Boating Safety Tips

Even though BUI penalties involve hefty fines and jail time, it is often not enough to deter some from drinking and boating and never consider the danger to life and well-being that BUI can cause. A water vessel is still a vehicle, and anyone operating s a vehicle must exercise proper care.

Here are some boating safety tips to keep in mind to avoid BUIs and the penalties and dangers:

  • Don’t bring alcohol onboard, both for your safety and the safety of your passengers
  • If you plan to drink alcohol on a boating trip, do it at the dock or beach
  • Operate your boat properly by avoiding reckless behavior
  • Be aware of the local marijuana laws; marijuana and other drugs are still not legalized in many states
  • Designate a qualified sober skipper (an experienced boater)
  • Avoid illicit drug use
  • Don’t drink alcohol if you are the only experienced boater onboard
  • Don’t allow minors to drink alcohol

Other Important Boating Safety Tips

These essential boating safety tips could help avoid boating accidents, regardless if alcohol is present or not:

  • Always wear a life jacket or a similar floatation device; advise all passengers to do the same
  • Stay alert and watch out for stationary objects and other vessels, especially smaller ones like water skis
  • Protect yourself from the sun and drink plenty of water to avoid boater’s fatigue
  • Know the number of emergency services and ensure you have the means to contact them
  • If you are involved in an accident, wait for law enforcement officers and emergency services to arrive; do not move your boat unless doing so will cause unnecessary harm.
  • Do not compromise your safety by speeding or showing off.

Illinois Boating Laws

State law prohibits all boaters operating a vessel to consume drugs or alcohol. The law also states that any boater operating a vessel has already given their “implied” consent to be tested for drug or alcohol when arrested while under the influence.

Any amount of cannabis (marijuana) or any other intoxicating compound or controlled substance identified in their blood or urine will be deemed to have been operating the vehicle under the influence.

Contact an Experienced BUI Lawyer

Boating under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or any drug is a violation of the law. It can lead to severe consequences, including jail time, hefty fines, injury, and in worst cases--even death.

However, many boaters who recklessly cause an accident while operating a recreational vessel while impaired are never held criminally accountable, even if there is probable cause.

Even so, our attorneys can aggressively seek compensation on your behalf to ensure you receive the monetary recovery you deserve. Our law firm provides our legal services by accepting cases on contingency, meaning our clients are not charged any upfront fees. We get paid when you do through the defendant’s settlement or jury award.

Call (888) 424-5757 or fill out this online contact form for a free consultation today. All confidential or sensitive information you share with our legal team remains private through an attorney-client relationship.


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