By Pamela Doty
Special to GUIDON
According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in recreational boater deaths and a leading contributor in boating accidents.
I know from my experience in tracking water-related fatalities nationwide that alcohol is also involved in many swimming deaths. What you may not know are some of the specific reasons why boaters and swimmers under the influence are more likely to drown.
As a park ranger at different lakes for many years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that they don’t understand why their loved one drowned because they were such a strong swimmer.
When I find out that the deceased had been drinking, I know there are a couple of reasons why it might have happened. The first that comes to my mind is the inner ear condition (caloric labyrinthitis) associated with the sudden cooling of the skin and hyperventilation. It can cause those who are intoxicated to become disoriented underwater and not know which way is up. People who jump or fall in the water can become disoriented and swim down instead of up to safety, causing them to drown.
People jumping or falling into cold water can also drown due to an involuntary gasp reflex that can uncontrollably cause them to inhale water. Some believe suddenly entering any water less than body temperature can cause an involuntary gasp reflex, but most water safety experts say that water less than 60 degrees is the danger zone.
Alcohol delays your reaction time, so a gasp reflex underwater may be another reason why people under the influence are more likely to drown.
Everyone knows that alcohol can impair your judgment, balance, vision and reaction time. Also, boaters know how exhausting a day on the water can be even if you’re not drinking alcohol. What you may not be aware of is that this fatigue is called “boater’s hypnosis.”
It is caused by the effects of sun, glare, wind, noise and motion (vibration) of the boat. These boating stressors can slow your reaction time almost as much as if you were legally intoxicated. Adding alcohol to this condition intensifies the effects of these boating stressors, just as each drink multiplies your risks of a boating accident.
Operation Dry Water is a nationally coordinated effort to educate boaters about the dangers of boating while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is a year-round campaign with a heightened enforcement weekend from July 5 through 7.
Law enforcement, recreational boating safety educators and volunteers will be out informing boaters about safe boating practices and removing impaired operators from the water. Find out more about Operation Dry Water at www.operationdrywater.org.
Most people never think they are going to be involved in a boating or swimming tragedy. Those who have lost loved ones or who have been seriously injured in alcohol-related incidents want you to know it could happen to you too. In addition to not drinking while boating or swimming, the best protection is to always wear a life jacket. Please share this information to help us spread the awareness of the dangers of boating and swimming under the influence so we can all have safe enjoyable experiences on and in the water this summer.
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(Editor’s note: Doty is with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fort Worth, Texas.)