Scientists studying boat mishaps find less alcohol than expected
For immediate use March 27, 1998 - No. 276
By EMILY SMITH
CHAPEL HILL — By asking for and testing breath samples this spring and summer, University of North Carolina researchers will determine how much alcohol boaters consume on state inland waters.
Early findings from data gathered last year were that N.C. boaters did not drink nearly as much as some people thought, said Dr. Rob Foss, alcohol studies manager at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.
"Only 2.1 percent of boat operators and passengers tested showed blood alcohol above 0.08 percent, the legal limit in North Carolina for boat operators," Foss said. "Eighteen percent of boaters reported consuming alcohol the day they were interviewed, and 14 percent had a level above zero."
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is funding the five-year project, which also involves the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center. Last spring and summer, highway safety staff collected breath alcohol measurements from 1,260 boaters and 1, 174 responses to a 3 5-question survey.
Researchers hope the data will help determine alcohol's role in boating fatalities and injuries, Foss said.
"Many people believe that alcohol is a huge problem among boaters, but nobody knows how much drinking is really going on," he said. "There have been measures of alcohol in people who have died while boating, but that's only half the picture. To find out what role alcohol plays in deaths and injuries, we need to measure drinking by people who aren't injured or killed as well."
The N.C. project, which continues into the year 2000, also involves Johns Hopkins' Center for Injury Research and Policy, which gathers information on Maryland boaters. Results from both states will be compared.
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The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission provided reports on all N.C. boating-related deaths from 1989 through 1998. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shared information on victims' alcohol content.
Reports on 212 fatalities showed that 41 percent of victims had alcohol in their bodies when they died, Foss said.
Alcohol may contribute more to boating deaths and injuries than to motor-vehicle deaths and injuries because boat passengers are much more likely to die than car passengers who drink.
"A lot of people die from drinking and boating not because there's a crash, but because they fall out and drown," he said, "Alcohol can make you fall out of a boat, but it generally doesn't make you fall out of a car."
UNC researchers use portable breathalyzers to obtain breath readings from boaters fishing, swimming, sunbathing, skiing, jet-skiing and cruising. All major N.C. waters were surveyed, and cooperation has been good.
"From what we've seen, a lot of people are curious about breathalyzers, whether they've been drinking or not," Foss said. "They want to know how they work."We do get some people who are uncomfortable with blowing in a breathalyzer," he added. "The question is are people who have been drinking more likely to refuse the breathalyzer? The answer from what we've seen so far is no."
In coming months, researchers plan to gather more information on people riding in smaller boats and on jet-skis.
The study shows some interesting trends, said research assistant Chris Bartley. Passengers, for example, were nearly twice as likely to have elevated alcohol levels as boat operators.
"Nearly 3 percent of passengers had an alcohol level above 0.08 percent while 1.5 percent of boat operators exceeded the legal limit," he said.
The study also found that non-fishermen were more than twice as likely as fishermen to have elevated alcohol levels. Boaters swimming were nearly twice as likely to have high levels as those not swimming, "All in all, we estimate that about 14 percent of people out on the water drink at any given time — at least during the hours we measured — but very few could be considered impaired," Bartley said.
Note: Foss can be reached at (919) 962-2202
Highway Safety Contact: Emily Smith, 962-7803.
News Services Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596.