Tougher Washington State BUI Laws To Start On Sunday

By Meghan Walker

On the weekends, a lot of boaters hit the lakes.

That means a lot of drinking going on out on the water.

But, boating under the influence laws are about to get a lot tougher.

On Sunday, a new state law will take effect that will make drunk boating as punishable as drunk driving.

KUOW’s Meghan Walker went out with Seattle Harbor Patrol to how officers deal with drinking and boating.

It’s Friday night on Lake Union.

Kayakers, sailboats, and motorboats are all over the lake.

Seaplanes are taking off and landing almost constantly.

This is one of the most popular lakes in the state, and Seattle Harbor Patrol stays plenty busy.

“Officer David Joseph Sylvester, patrol officer assigned to the marine patrol unit.”

Sylvester and Officer Richard Groves are on a 24 hour shift.

They spend about 12 hours a day out on the water.

At night, they work much like the fire department, on-call in case something happens.

Seattle Harbor Patrol monitors Lake Union, Lake Washington and the Puget Sound.

And, it’s the only 24-hour marine patrol unit in the region.

Not long after we head out, Officer Groves gets the report that there’s a boat with expired tabs near the south end of the lake, so we head over to check it out.

As we pull up to the boat, Sylvester notices the two men on board have opened beers.

“How much have you had to drink today? One beer. One beer? Is that your beer in the cozy?

He questions them about how much they’ve been drinking.

“Alright, no other empties on board. Just asking, but you don’t appear to be impaired to me. No, this is my first beer. Okay.”
then lets them go.

Sylvester says this is a pretty normal interaction on the water, especially on the weekends when the weather is nice.

Officer Sylvester says it’s actually legal to have an open container on a boat.

“It’s a little different than a car. Obviously on a car you can’t have an open container in your car. We all know that that’s a big no-no. On a boat it’s not quite the same. As you look around the lake you’ll see many luxury yachts in the 40-60 foot range, and they actually come with a bar already installed on their boat, so it’s pretty common for people to have a drink or two while they’re out on the water. what’s required is that they don’t allow that drinking to impair the safe operation of that boat.”

Currently, boating under the influence laws, or BUIs, are pretty lax.

Boaters can even deny taking a sobriety test.

But when the new law kicks in, you can’t refuse it.

And then, if you are caught impaired while boating, it’s a lot more serious.

“We bumped it from a $250 slap on the wrist to $5,000 and a year in jail.”

Even with the new laws, Sylvester is pretty realistic about the drinking culture on the lake.

“Wherever we get boaters that are clustering together and in good weather, you’re going to have people drinking beers, and just essentially, we want people to act responsibly.”

There’s another change coming to Seattle’s waterways: noise control.

Seattle City Council just passed a noise ordinance that makes it illegal to play music on a boat if it can be heard from 300 feet away.

That law goes into effect early next month.

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