Most folks will wait until they get to the picnic to pop that first beer this Fourth of July weekend. It is against the law to operate a motor vehicle in Florida with an open container of alcohol.
But if you travel by boat, or plan a party aboard your vessel, it is not illegal for the operator to be drinking an alcoholic beverage — it is, however, illegal to drive a boat while drunk.
"A lot of people don't think twice about it," said Capt. Tom Shipp of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But whether you are in a boat or a car, the impairment is still the same."
Boating Under the Influence, or BUI, is a serious problem, especially here in Florida, which has more registered boats than any other state.
"We see an increase nationally during the summer months," said John Fetterman, a former Maine marine officer who now works for the National Association of Boating Law Administrators. "And statistically, alcohol-related arrests and accidents peak on the Fourth of July."
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies will have an increased presence on the water this holiday weekend and boaters should be prepared for routine safety inspections.
"If an officer finds that you are impaired, your day will be interrupted, your boat could be impounded, the party is over," Fetterman said. "It is just not worth the risk."
And officers don't need to make an operator walk a straight line to determine if they are impaired. A recent three-year study administered by the U.S. Coast Guard has developed a set of standards that allow marine patrol officers to test boaters in a seated position and apply a "percentage of probability" that the operator has a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher.
If you are convicted of boating under the influence, you can be fined, jailed and lose your boating privileges for life.
Alcohol and/or drugs are a factor in roughly one out of four fatal boating accidents, Shipp said.
"They can impair a boat operator's vision and reaction time," Shipp said. "Sun, wind, fatigue and other factors can intensify the effects."
Alcohol can affect you differently on the water than on dry land for a lot of reasons. Plus, it can be harder for you to realize you're impaired, until it's too late. Here's why:
• "Wave action, the vibration of the motor, the added noise ... these are all stressors that can distract a boater under normal conditions," Shipp said. "Adding alcohol to the mix just aggravates the problem."
• Alcohol consumption can create an inner ear disturbance which can make it difficult for a person suddenly thrown into the water to distinguish up from down, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
• Being impaired can be more dangerous for drivers of boats than automobiles because most people have less experience and confidence on the water than they do in a car. Even if you're an avid boater, can you say you spend more time on the boat than driving your car?
• Dehydration can also lead to impairment. Sun and heat — exactly what you get plenty of on a boat in the summer — cause fluid loss, and dehydration increases with alcohol use. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that if you do drink, make every other one a non-alcoholic one. Given how hot it will be this weekend, you'd do well to up your ratio of no-alcohol beverages.