Study shows alcohol boosts death risk for boat passengers as well as operators

CHAPEL HILL Recreational boat passengers are just as likely as operators to die as a result of drinking alcohol, according to a new study of boating deaths in North Carolina and Maryland. One reason the study revealed was that passengers who have been drinking often topple overboard and drown.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Johns Hopkins University say their results indicate that efforts to reduce boating deaths that target only operators fail to protect many boaters at risk. Different approaches that will address all boat occupants are needed.

Its not just crashing into other boats or piers that is causing the deaths, said Dr. Robert D. Foss, research scientist at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. Frequently, people who have been drinking fall in the water even if a boat is not moving, become disoriented and drown.

Actress Natalie Wood apparently died that way 20 years ago in November after falling off her stationary yacht in California.

A report on the study appears in the Dec. 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Besides Foss, authors include Drs. Gordon S. Smith, Penelope M. Keyl and Jeffrey A. Hadley of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Injury Research and Policy, Dr. James McKnight of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, William Tolbert of Rho Inc. of Chapel Hill and Christopher Bartley of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.

The population-based, case-control study involved reviewing 221 boating deaths recorded in North Carolina and Maryland medical examiner files between 1990 and 1998 and comparing them with a probability sample of 3,943 boaters from both states. Victims studied were all over age 18. Commercial boat accidents were excluded.

Even with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of only .01 percent, the risk to operators and passengers increased 30 percent over people with no alcohol in their blood, Foss said. The

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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