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Alcohol Sharply Raises Death Risk for Boaters

Study says even light drinking increases odds

TUESDAY, Dec. 18, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Alcohol has been a part of boating lore since the first ship was christened with a bottle of champagne, but a new study says the two are a particularly deadly mixture.

Researchers say your chances of dying in a boating accident rise exponentially for every drink you have, and you don't have to come close to going overboard with the liquor.

The odds of an average-sized man getting killed on the water go up 30 percent after drinking just half a beer, the study says. And a person with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.25 -- about three times the legal limit for drunkenness in most states -- is more than 50 times likelier to die than a nondrinking boater or passenger.

John H. Shanahan Jr., president of the Boating Safety Institute of America, in Maywood, N.J., says, "Although there are state standards that permit operators to drink while they are boating and set intoxicated levels at 0.08 to 0.10 [BAC], our recommendation is that consuming alcohol has no place in boating."

The study appears in the Dec. 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers, led by Dr. Gordon Smith of Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, looked for the influence of alcohol in deadly boating accident records from Maryland and North Carolina between 1990 and 1998. For comparison, they collected interviews from nearly 4,000 boaters in each state between 1997 and 1999 and were able to garner breath alcohol samples from most of them. Only accidents involving boaters over age 18 were included in the study.

Smith's group analyzed 221 fatalities during the nine-year period, or roughly 25 a year. Eight in ten were drownings, as opposed to other trauma, and men accounted for about 93 percent of the fatalities.

Most fatalities involved motorboats that were either fishing or cruising, though people also died on sailboats and doing everything from water-skiing to towing another vessel. The researchers considered not only where and in what kind of waters the boaters were when they died, but how many people were in the crafts and at what time of day or night the fatalities occurred.

Of the boaters killed, 55 percent had a positive BAC, the researchers say. Although the relative risk of dying on a boat soared by a factor of 52 with a BAC of 0.25 compared to sobriety, the risk of death rose sharply even at levels considered legally safe.

At a BAC of 0.05, for example, the risk of dying was nearly four times higher than for sober boaters, the researchers say. An average-sized man -- weighing roughly 160 pounds -- could have a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 after less than three beers, whereas reaching a mark of 0.25 takes at least 14 12-ounce cans.

The odds of death were nearly identical for drinking boaters whether they were behind the rudder or in a passenger seat -- effectively scuttling the notion of "designated driver" programs for the waterways, Smith's group says.

Drinking on a boat can get a person in trouble on two levels. Drunks who land in the water are more prone to hypothermia and have a harder time keeping their heads above water. So not only does alcohol impair judgment, coordination and balance, raising the risk of a wreck and making drunken boaters more likely to wind up in the water, it boosts their chances of injury or death once there, the researchers say.

Shanahan says several factors help explain why boating and alcohol mix like oil and water. Boats move in three dimensions, pitching, rolling and yawing, which scrambles the body's equilibrium. It's also physically draining, especially if punctuated by periods of swimming or paddling.

And, by definition, recreational boating is done during off times when people are "pretty laid back" and have less "situational awareness" -- compared with, say, driving in traffic -- to keep them alert to hazards. "That's, after all, why people like to go boating," he says.

Add to that the heat and exposure to sun and glare, which can exacerbate feelings of intoxication. "Now you take the same [BAC] that might be permissible in an automobile and ask the simple question: 'Does it work when you're boating?'" The answer, he says, is no.

"There's clearly a causal factor between boating accidents and drowning and alcohol," agrees William P. Condon, president of the American Boating Association. "Unfortunately, a lot of people look at recreational boating as a time to get a six-pack and go out and drink."

Condon says he doesn't believe "anyone in the industry would promote boating and drinking or would condone it." However, he says, "A lot of organizations are somewhat silent" on the problem.

He says another concern is that many fatal accidents occur when boaters have tied up and are relaxing with liquor. "They have a few drinks and fall off a dock."

For that reason, Condon says many in the boating industry recommend not moderation but total abstinence from alcohol around the water.

What To Do

Roughly 14 million Americans enjoy boating on a regular basis, Condon says. In 1998, 800 Americans died while boating, say Smith and his colleagues. And they say 30 percent to 40 percent of boaters report drinking while on the water.

To find out more about safe boating, try the Boating Safety Institute of America or the American Boating Association.

The National Transportation Safety Board also deals with marine matters.

The University of Oklahoma Police Department has a site that lets you calculate BAC, which varies by weight and gender and how long you've been drinking.

SOURCES: Interviews with John H. Shanahan Jr., president, Boating Safety Institute Of America, Maywood, N.J.; William P. Condon, president, American Boating Association, Harwich Port, Mass.; Dec. 19, 2001, Journal of the American Medical Association
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