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Drinking and Paddling: My thoughts on the proposed changes to drinking and paddling criminal charges

There has been a LOT of discussion about drinking and canoeing on the web lately, with Transport Canada announcing that they are considering dropping drunk paddling as an impaired driving offense.

I think that at this time, it is a really, really bad idea.

According to the Boatsmart website, 65% of boating-related accidents in Canada are alcohol related.

Sixty-Five per cent.

Even when the penalty for boating – which, by the way, includes canoeing and kayaking - while intoxicated is the same as drinking and driving a motor vehicle, people are still getting out there and paddling drunk.   

Do I think people should lose their driver’s licenses if caught drinking and paddling? No, not really. The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. But here's the thing: Transport Canada hasn’t announced any other legislation to replace what might be dropped. And that is the part that I think is a really, really bad idea.

If Transport Canada goes through with their plans, the penalty for drinking and paddling in Ontario will be toothless. Instead of losing your licence or going to jail, you might be faced with these fines instead (Source: Ontario Court of Justice):
  • Consuming liquor in other than licensed premises, residence or private place $100
  • Having liquor in open container in other than licensed premises, residence or private place $100
  • Being intoxicated in public place $50
  • Being intoxicated in a common area $50

In my opinion, fines like these are not a deterrent.   Removing penalties with a big bite sends a message that says “Meh – we know you probably shouldn’t do it. But it’s not that big of a deal if you do. Here’s a bit of a token fine that will cost you less than weekend supply of booze.”

I’m pretty sure that any family who has lost a loved one to a drinking and paddling incident would think that those lives were worth more than a $100 fine.

Losing your driver’s license and being charged under the criminal code? That is a deterrent.

One good thing that has come out of the news about the proposed changes to the law, is the amount of discussion that is happening around drinking and paddling. The bad news is that it has quickly become obvious that there is a great deal of misunderstanding around alcohol and paddling from a legal and a cultural perspective.

I think that drinking and paddling needs to become as socially unacceptable as getting in a car and driving with an open beer in the cup holder. (And if you think that is NOT unacceptable, stop reading here.  Because that is an even bigger issue than what’s being discussed in this post.)

Based on some very unscientific research, I think a lot of people don’t realize that an impaired boating charge is the same as a drunk driving charge. In fact, I was astounded to see comments on various social media discussions reveal that folks didn’t even know you could be charged for drinking in a canoe. What is even worse, is that it appears there are a lot of people who think drinking and paddling is still just fine, thank you very much.

This is where I think that the people in charge of public awareness and marketing campaigns for this kind of thing have done a terrible job of making the idea of drinking and boating – including paddling – a huge social no-no.  But while I do point the finger at government, agencies and organizations for not doing a better job at PSA’s about this topic, I can’t ignore that the paddling community also has a responsibility in this matter.  It is truly mind boggling to me that people don’t have the common sense to realise it’s a bad idea to drink while paddling. But as the saying goes, common sense is not so common.

There was a time where it was completely socially acceptable to drink and drive and drink and boat and drink in public places without apparent consequence. Now, you would NEVER allow a person to consume alcohol while in a vehicle, or drive drunk. Why do we stay silent when people drink and then get in their canoe or kayak? Or even worse, drink while they are actually sitting in the boat? Why don’t we call each other out when we see social media posts that glamourize drinking and paddling, or videos that show paddlers cheerfully downing a cold one mid-way through a paddle while still sitting in the boat?

Guys. Why aren't we saying WTF are you doing? Out loud?

It is simply not ok to drink and paddle. Here’s why (Source: Boatsmart):

  • Alcohol slows your swallowing and breathing reflexes, making you more likely to drown if you fall out of your boat.
  • Heat and sun can cause dehydration as the body tries to cool itself by sweating. If you’re dehydrated, you will feel the effects of alcohol more quickly. Even mildly dehydrated people will absorb alcohol more quickly into their system and will have a higher blood alcohol concentration than a non-dehydrated person. Dehydration causes the body to lose fluids, which can lead to stomach cramps while attempting to swim and stay above water.
  • Alcohol causes diminished judgment and ability to process information. In other words, it will make you less attentive.
  • It causes lower reaction and reflex response times.
  • It causes reduced motor skills, peripheral vision and balance, putting you at greater risk of falling out of your boat.
  • It results in poorer depth perception, vision and focus.
  • It can cause inner ear disturbances, which make it harder to distinguish the water surface if you fall out of your boat.
  • It can cause accelerated Hypothermia. Alcohol lowers the body’s resistance to cold.

So. I’ve given you a statistic. I’ve given you proven facts. I’ve given you my unscientific and totally biased opinion. Now, I’m going to give you some advice.

Be a friend and spread the word amongst your tribe to keep the beer on the pier and don’t drink and paddle.

Remind your paddling partners that it is not cool to crack open a cold one until the boat is safely on shore. Let the people you follow on social media know that photos or videos of paddlers drinking alcohol in their boats, isn’t acceptable - no matter how big a fan you might be of their social media channels. Shaming isn't required, but neither is acceptance.

Are you a blogger? Do you have social media pages? Be responsible in what you post and become an advocate for safe paddling. Spread the word that it is not cool to drink and paddle.

Maybe the laws in Canada are going to lose their bite, but as a community we can take up the responsibility to keep each other accountable and safe when it comes to drinking and paddling.