Boating Laws, Life Jackets & BUI

This article will provide information about state and federal boating laws, life jacket requirements, BUI or “boating under the influence” laws and how to find out more about boat laws.

Federal Law Usually Supersedes State Law

In general, federal general maritime law trumps state laws that deal with boats of any type on federal waters. The states may create laws that do not conflict with federal law or create law where there isn’t one that has been enacted by the federal government. For example, states are able to regulate sales and registration of boats, establish requirements for reporting accidents and more. A state may also enact criminal laws and penalties for reckless or careless operation of a boat, including relevant DUI / DWI laws for the operation of boats.

Do Boat Laws Require Life Jackets?

Most states have enacted laws that require children under a certain age to wear a life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) when on a passenger on a boat. As of 2009, only Wisconsin and Virginia do not require children wear life jackets while boating. Typically, any child under the age of 12 or 13 is required to wear a personal flotation device when present around water ways. Some states only require children under the age of 6 or 7 to wear a life jacket when they are onboard a vessel, below the deck in the cabin or onboard boats of certain sizes. There are 11 states that do not require life jackets at all but every passenger and operator of a boat may be subject to federal boat laws. Under the 2002 Federal Life Jacket Rule, federal law requires all children under 13 to have on a life jacket if they are present or a passenger of a boat on federal waterways. Like the states, the exception to this rule is when the children are below the deck or in a cabin.

The Federal Life Jacket Rule does not apply to states that have established lifejacket requirements for children. For states that do have a law, the Federal Life Jacket Rule recognizes and adopts the existent state law, even if it is not as stringent as the federal law.

The U.S. Coast Guard requires boats to have at least one life jacket or personal flotation device that is U.S. Coast Guard approved (Type I, II, III, or V) for each person aboard. If the vessel is 16 feet or longer, they must have at least one throwable personal flotation device (Type IV) onboard. There are no laws that require adults to wear a personal flotation device. You can obtain more information from the U.S. Coast Guard website.

Penalties for a boat operator who fails to comply with the Federal Life Jacket Rule and require children under the age of 13 to wear a life jacket are virtually the same as those for adults. Penalties may be assessed up to a maximum of $1,100 per violation.

BUI – Boating Under the Influence versus DUI / DWI

Just like driving, it is illegal in all states to be operating a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In most states there is potential jail time and fines for first offenses that are almost the same as driving under the influence, including the suspension of a boating license. 37 states do not tie a boating DUI or DWI to a person’s motor vehicle driver’s license while the remaining connect convictions between boating and drivers’ licenses. Boating laws are also complex. You will probably want to speak to an experienced criminal defense or personal injury lawyer in the event you have been involved in a BUI incident or an accident.

Oddly enough, open containers of alcohol while boating are permitted in most states, despite the fact that the majority of accidents seem to occur due to boating under the influence. Being intoxicated in public in a boat is a crime in most waterways, as it is on land. Law enforcement officials have the authority to make BUI / boating under the influence checks to determine that boat operators are not intoxicated. You may wish to familiarize yourself with the procedures and field sobriety test for motor vehicles if you are stopped and suspected of boating under the influence.

State Boating Laws

State boating laws vary between states, sometimes with great differences. The most up to date place to find current state laws is usually NASBLA, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. You can find information about state boating laws on the NASBLA website.

Federal Law and United States Code Title 46

The United States Code (USC) contains the laws of the United States. The sections related to Recreational Boat Safety are as follows:

  • USC Title 46, Subtitle II – Vessels and Seamen
    • PART A – GENERAL PROVISIONS
      • Chapter 21 – General
      • Chapter 23 – Operation of Vessels Generally
    • PART B – INSPECTION AND REGULATION OF VESSELS
      • Chapter 41 – Uninspected Vessels Generally
      • Chapter 43 – Recreational Vessels
    • PART D – MARINE CASUALTIES
      • Chapter 61 – Reporting Marine Casualties
      • Chapter 63 – Investigating Marine Casualties
    • PART H – IDENTIFICATION OF VESSELS
      • Chapter 121 – Documentation of Vessels
      • Chapter 123 – Numbering Undocumented Vessels
      • Chapter 125 – Vessel Identification System
    • PART I – STATE BOATING SAFETY PROGRAMS
      • Chapter 131 – Recreational boating safety
    • PART J – MEASUREMENT OF VESSELS
      • Chapter 141 – General
      • Chapter 143 – Convention measurement
      • Chapter 145 – Regulatory measurement
      • Chapter 147 – Penalties

Federal Boating Regulations

The Federal Register and Code of Federal Registration provide both (i) the general and permanent rules of various departments and regulatory agencies and (ii) official notice to the public about federal laws that may have general application. The most important parts of the Code of Federal Regulations to Recreational Boating Safety are:

  • Vessel Numbering and Casualty and Accident Reporting: 33 CFR 173
  • State Numbering and Casualty Reporting Systems: 33 CFR 174
  • Manufacturer certification: 33 CFR 181.5-19
  • Identification of boats: 33 CFR 181.21
  • Display of capacity information: 33 CFR 183.21-27
  • Safe loading: 33 CFR 183.31-43
  • Safe powering: 33 CFR 183.51-53
  • Flotation: 33 CFR 183.101-335
  • Electrical systems: 33 CFR 183.401-460
  • Fuel systems: 33 CFR 183.501-590
  • Ventilation: 33 CFR 183.601-630
  • Start-in-gear protection: 33 CFR 183.701-715
  • Navigation lights: 33 CFR 183.801-810
  • Backfire flame control: 46 CFR 25.35
  • Negligent operation
  • Operating a vessel while under the influence of alcohol or a dangerous drug
  • Numbering undocumented vessels
  • Reporting undocumented vessel accidents and casualties
  • State numbering and casualty reporting systems
  • Carriage and use of personal flotation devices (PFDs)
  • Carriage and use of visual distress signals (VDS)
  • Carriage of fire extinguishing equipment
  • Correction of especially hazardous conditions
  • Regulated boating areas
  • Vessel identification system

The United States Coast Guard safeguards federal waters in the United States and also protects ports, at sea and around the globe. They protect the maritime economy and the environment, defend maritime borders, and assist boaters in federal waters who are in danger and emergency situations. More information about federal law can be obtained on the US Coast Guard website and on the Boating Safety Resource Center website.

Michael M Wechsler, Esq.

Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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