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Boating Safety and OWIs In Wisconsin

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Wisconsin is blessed with an abundance of waterways perfect for summer boating, canoeing, and kayaking.  With over 600K registered boats and watercraft, state residents most assuredly enjoy boating activities.  To make sure that everyone has a safe boating experience, it’s important to think about safety whether you’re a boat owner or passenger.  

In 2013 here in Wisconsin, there were 87 serious boat accidents resulting in 66 injuries and 13 deaths.  While the number of accidents and deaths is lower than previous years, there still much we can do to prevent problems.

Taking a boating safety course is a great way to minimize the risk of accidents on the water.   Boat safety courses are designed to familiarize you with the craft, to increase your skill in operating and maneuvering the craft, and to prepare you to deal with any accidents or emergencies.  In 2013, inearly half of all boating accidents involved a novice operator with less than 100 hours experience operating a boat of any kind. Also, in over half of the accidents, these novice operators were adults between 40-49 years of age.

A "reportable" boat incident is any incident (regardless of the number of boats involved) that results in loss of life, injuries that require medical treatment beyond first aid, boat or property damage in excess of $2,000, or complete loss of a boat.  Wisconsin law requires every boat operator involved in a reportable boat incident to report the incident without delay to law enforcement officials. In addition, within 10 days of the incident, the operator must submit a written report. 

You can find the proper reporting forms at online at dnr.wi.gov, DNR offices, sheriff's departments and many local police departments. Failing to properly report a boating accident can result in a $326 penalty along with any related legal or financial actions stemming from the accident.

Check the weather forecast before you go boating.  Be aware of the day’s weather and change your plans if a storm is in the forecast. If you are swimming, fishing or boating and there are clouds, dark skies and distant rumbles of thunder or flashes of lightning, get to land immediately and seek shelter. If you are in a boat and cannot get to shore, crouch down in the middle of the boat. Go below if possible.

Be sure your boat is water worthy and has the proper safety equipment on board. Know your craft and check it before each use to be sure it is in water-safe condition. Carry any required or recommended safety equipment on board. If you are operating a motorboat, make sure you have enough fuel and that all systems are working properly. 

Do not overload your boat. Be sure you know the craft’s maximum capacity for both people and weight, and don’t carry more.

Always wear a properly fitting life jacket and outfit children with lifejackets. Many adults who are strong swimmers simply toss their lifejackets in the boat or canoe and believe they don’t need them because of they know how to swim.   However, water temperature, distance from shore, and other factors can make swimming more difficult than you expect in the event of an accident or a problem with your craft. If you’re in the water and your craft, a paddle, or anything else hits you in the head and renders you unconscious, the best swimming skills in the world won’t help.

The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that life jackets could have saved the lives of over 80 percent of boating fatality victims.  In 2013, in all the accidents in Wisconsin, only 29% of those involved had a lifejacket.  Of the 13 accident victims who died in 2013, 92% of them were not wearing a lifejacket and drowned.

Avoid fooling around, and keep kids seated. No paddle wars, standing up, wrestling, or other activities that will literally “rock the boat” and invite accidents or injury.

Watch for swimmers. Regardless of the type of craft you’re using, always keep an eye out for swimmers and keep a safe distance away from anyone who is in the water.

Don’t drink alcohol while out on the water or operating a watercraft. When you think of DWI/OWI laws, you probably think of people getting pulled over for driving a car, truck, or motorcycle while drunk, but the same laws also apply to  boats and watercraft.

If you are caught operating a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you will be arrested and charged with OWI.  Just as with an auto, the legal blood alcohol limit for operating a boat is 0.08.  The penalties for exceeding the .08 limit boating can range from temporary detainment to jail time.  Last year in Wisconsin, there were over 240 arrest made for OWI while boating. 

Both state and federal authorities can arrest you for violating DWI boating laws. Specifically, federal officials, particularly the Coast Guard, have authority when a body of water runs through more than one state. This includes the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean as well as major bodies of water such as the Great Lakes or Mississippi River.

Most fatal boating accidents cite alcohol use as a contributing factor and boaters need to be aware that alcohol can have a greater physical impact on water than on the land.  Dehydration and the motion and vibration of the boat add to the intensity alcohol  impairment when on the water. 

Balance is one of the first things you lose when you consume alcohol. When you combine loss of balance with the rocking of a boat, the chance of falling overboard increases.

The sun causes you to perspire, which removes the water from your body but leaves the alcohol in. This can cause a quicker and higher level of impairment.  If your boating plans involve alcohol, be sure to have a sober designated driver as the boat operator.

As with any outdoor activity, the best way to be safe while boating is to learn all you can about it before you take part. Take a safety course, become licensed if required, learn everything you need to know about any craft that you own, borrow, or rent, and don’t give in to any temptation to break the rules. That momentary decision to skip the life jacket just once could lead to an unnecessary tragedy.

If you are involved in a boating accident or charged with an OWI while boating, contact LeBell, Dobroski, Morgan & Meylink.  For over 40 years, we have been providing legal assistance for the people of Southern Wisconsin.