Illinois Boaters: Operating While Drunk Carries Hefty Penalties

Over the past few decades, federal and state programs have targeted drunk driving as a major public safety issue, and most people know the legal driving blood alcohol level and perhaps even their states' penalties. However, the public is less aware that states, including Illinois, have operating while intoxicated laws for boaters.  

The penalties for operating while intoxicated, or OUI, can be as tough as those for driving while intoxicated. This means it is important to understand the law.

Rise in Boating While Impaired

Last year in Illinois, nine people died in accidents involving a drunken boat operator, the highest number in seven years. Of the 18 alcohol-related boating accidents in Illinois in 2011, 13 resulted in injury. These statistics ranked Illinois second in the nation for boating while under the influence fatalities, behind its northern neighbor, Wisconsin.

Nationally, alcohol was identified as a primary factor in almost 40 percent of the 317 recreational boating fatalities last year. These incidents involved a drunken boat operator whose intoxication contributed to the incident.

Some believe the reduction in Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) police force has contributed to the increase of drunk boater accidents. The IDNR has lost a third of its police force over the last decade. The remaining 125 officers are responsible for patrolling the state's waters for illegal activity, including impaired boat operators.

Others cite other reasons for the increase, such as companies that rent boats to the public with a bring-your-own-bottle policy. Yet these companies also offer an overview of drinking safety and Illinois' OUI laws.

Another factor is that while enjoying a couple of beers at home on one's couch may not result in intoxication, drinking the same amount on a boat with engine vibrations, heat and direct sun can exacerbate drunkenness.

Illinois' Operating While Intoxicated Laws

While there are several possible explanations for the rise in accidents involving drunken boat operators, none of these will sway a law enforcement officer from issuing a citation for OUI. It is important that boaters understand the consequences of operating a boat while intoxicated to avoid the penalties.

The legal limit for boat operators is .08 percent, the same blood alcohol concentration that is limit for drivers. First-time OUI offenders face up to a year in jail and/or fines up to $2,500. The charges increase to a felony if the offender has a previous OUI conviction, causes an accident that results in serious injury or was caught while his or her boating privileges were suspended. The state's laws also prohibit operating a boat with any amount of cannabis in one's system.

Illinois has tough OUI penalties for those who choose to operate a boat while impaired. While the easiest way to avoid an OUI charge is to hand over the throttle to a sober operator, those accused of operating while under the influence should consult an experienced criminal law attorney.