Alcohol and boats: deadly mixture

April 12, 1993

The tragic boating deaths of two Cleveland Indians pitchers last month stand as a warning for Marylanders as their season on the Chesapeake Bay commences.

Alcohol is increasingly a factor in boating accidents in Maryland waters, despite federal and state education efforts. Alcohol is now involved in more than half the fatal small-boat accidents on Maryland waters, double the proportion of alcohol-related fatalities on state highways. Alcohol and gasoline don't mix, and the combination is even more deadly on the water than on land.

Ramming a pier in the dark at fairly high speed, as pitcher Tim Crews did in Florida, isn't a typical boating accident. But it involved elements which are, unhappily, becoming typical here. While collisions with other boats still rank as the most common mishap on water, most of the fatalities in the past two years have been from boats capsizing or a boater falling overboard. Nearly half of the people killed have been passengers, not boat operators. Six years ago, one-quarter of boating deaths involved alcohol. Three years ago, the proportion jumped to one-third. Now it's more than half.

Unlike the Florida accident, in which Mr. Crews and one of his two passengers died of injuries, almost all the people killed recently in small boats here have drowned -- 56 of the 67 fatalities on Maryland's waters in the past three years. That means the accident itself did not kill them; they died in the water. In some cases, they were knocked unconscious, but in the majority of incidents they might have saved themselves if their minds and bodies had not been impaired by alcohol. Even a strong swimmer is often helpless in the water if he's drunk and not wearing a life jacket.

Too many boaters think that since they can drive a car safely they can operate a power boat skillfully. Yet power boats can be exhilarating even without the stimulus of alcohol. A slow speed on a highway, like 25 miles an hour, can be pretty fast on the water. Combine speed with impaired judgment or sluggish physical reaction time, and a boater is an accident waiting to happen. The chances are getting higher all the time that he will kill or maim someone else rather than himself.

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