How Impaired Boating can Impact Your Driving Record | Onlia

How Impaired Boating can Impact Your Driving Record

What happens on the water can follow you on land.

Alex Kelly
by Alex Kelly

With summer around the corner, Canadians are excited for the boating season to kick off. While Onlia focuses on home and auto, boating is a pretty important consideration because what you do on water can actually impact your ability to drive on land.

Impaired boating can impact your driving record

Federal and provincial impaired driving legislation in Canada includes water-bound vessels. This classification has surprised many – the same laws you abide by on a roadway carry over to the water, no matter if you are paddling or using an engine. Impairment on the water works the same way it would if you were on the roads; a blood alcohol content level of 0.08 or confirmed drug use warrants a licence suspension, at minimum, upon conviction. 

Transport Canada notes that “the laws and penalties for when a boater is considered impaired follow provincial and territorial driving laws.” Federally, this may result in fines, a prohibition from operation, boat seizure, and even prison. Subsequent offences call for an increase in punitive efforts, on top of provincial or territorial rules. 

It is important to remember that this is all recorded on your driver’s licence, not a boating licence or permit. If you are caught impaired while boating, the restrictions are reflected in your ability to operate a motor vehicle. Your weekend festivities on the water could mean an end to your driving days on land.

Operating a vessel: Skills required 

When you’re out on the water  whether you’re paddling in a canoe or steering a powerboat  it can feel so calm and relaxed. Absolutely nothing like driving on a highway, lakes and rivers can feel almost lawless; no road markers, less rules, more space for everyone to pilot around. This can often lead to people cruising with an alcoholic drink, or using cannabis on the water.

The rulings may seem odd at first, given that floating on the water is decidedly different than moving around on land. However, maneuvering safely on the water is a highly technical skill that carries a great degree of risk. Variable conditions, such as wind, waves, or weather can change the day in an instant. 

The type of vessel you use also comes with its own share of complexities. Powerboats and jet skis have complicated engine systems, while sailboats require technical knowledge of physics and the wind. While seemingly simple, canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards can be unstable, and things can go awry in an instant. This risk, coupled with the potential risks of rescue efforts is all considered by lawmakers. While a slow-moving canoe or sailboat may not seem like a catastrophic collision-causing machine, saving someone’s life requires a coordinated effort that may put many other lives at risk. 


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Risks on the water  

For a country with a relatively short warm-weather season, water-related deaths are of great concern. The Red Cross reports an average of 166 boating-related deaths annually, with alcohol present or suspected in over 50% of cases. Researchers have found that alcohol use is a preventable risk “for boating-related deaths,” alongside the failure to use personal floatation devices (PFDs).

The effects of drinking and drugs are amplified on the water, impacting cognitive function as well as judgement and reaction time. In a worst-case scenario, if someone falls overboard into cold water, alcohol actually speeds up heat loss – therefore increasing the likelihood of hypothermia. On a hot, summer’s day, the mix of alcohol and drugs with boating can be a lot – the combination of the sun, wind, and motion of a boat can inhibit your senses, impairing essential fine motor skills and judgment.

Unfortunately, these risks are real and have played out in Ontario courts. In a landmark case, impairment of an adult canoeist was ruled to have contributed to the death of a child passenger. While paddling in a surging snow-melt river, the canoeist unintentionally tipped over his boat, and the eight-year-old boy with him was washed down the river, drowning before rescuers arrived. Convicted of impaired operation causing death, alongside charges of dangerous operation and criminal negligence, the offender may spend the rest of his life in prison. 

Before you go...

Knowing the ins and outs of safety on the water is critical. Understand the conditions you’re setting out in, and make sure to always perform a safety check on your boat, paddleboard, or canoe before you go to ensure you have all the appropriate safety gear, as required by law. 

Drinking can be allowed on vessels, but they must be equipped with permanent cooking facilities, sleeping facilities and a toilet. Any consumption can only be done when the boat is anchored or docked, but know that if you have to leave your mooring, the boat owner must be sober to move the boat safely. Jurisdictions may have varying regulations, so it is always important to check before you go. 

With rapidly changing conditions, anything can happen on the water. Staying clear-headed guarantees you are capable of assessing risk and handling it appropriately. A great time to celebrate the awesome day? When everyone is off the water, safe and sound.


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