Rules of the Road

Yep, you can buy a beer on a Washington ferry. But you’re still liable for sobriety.

The Washington State ferry Chimacum sails past in Puget Sound. Just because alcohol is sold on Washington state ferries, that doesn’t mean people aren’t over-consuming on their ferry rides or that the state approves of driving while impared.
The Washington State ferry Chimacum sails past in Puget Sound. Just because alcohol is sold on Washington state ferries, that doesn’t mean people aren’t over-consuming on their ferry rides or that the state approves of driving while impared. AP file

Question: I recently rode on a Washington state ferry and noticed that they sell alcohol on the ferries. At first I didn’t think anything of it, until I realized that except for the walk-aboards, everyone else has to drive to get off the ferry. Why does the state sell alcohol to people they know have to drive right after drinking?

Answer: I have a vague recollection of hearing debates in the news about whether the Washington ferries should sell alcohol, but I couldn’t find a start date for alcohol service. I did find some archived newspaper articles from the early ‘90s confirming that the ferries, after some consideration by the state, had decided to continue to sell alcohol, so I can conclude that alcohol has been available for purchase on Washington ferries for at least 26 years.

Why is that timeline important? Mainly because in looking for stories about DUI arrests of drivers coming off of ferries, I couldn’t find any. That’s not to say they don’t exist. I would expect though, that if a person got arrested for impaired driving after consuming alcohol served to them by a state-operated ferry, it would make the news. To the state’s credit, they have established alcohol service policies that somewhat decrease the likelihood that someone will get impaired on ferry beer by limiting service to one drink per person per sale. That doesn’t stop someone from buying more than one drink over the course of a ride, but it does give the person selling the alcohol an opportunity to evaluate the purchaser before selling them the next drink. Based on what you’ll read next, that system doesn’t always work.

Despite not finding any news stories about drivers impaired by alcohol served on ferries, that doesn’t mean people aren’t over-consuming on their ferry rides. On a Seattle subreddit from the website Reddit I found a confession from a ferry rider who said, “I got half drunk on the Edmonds-Kingston route off their canned ciders!” If you’re celebrating that confession with an exclamation point, I’m guessing that “half drunk” is a bit of an underestimation.

What’s a lot harder to measure is how the state’s policy influences drivers when they’re not on the ferry. Does the fact that a state agency sanctions the sale of alcohol in a situation when people are likely to drive affect the cultural attitudes of drivers toward alcohol consumption and driving in Washington? Does ferry alcohol service communicate that drinking and driving isn’t a big deal? And does that message translate to influencing people to take risks with alcohol and driving when they’re not traveling by ferry?

To contrast Washington’s policy on alcohol sales on ferries, the British Columbia ferry system has a zero-tolerance policy toward alcohol. The B.C. ferry system believes that their zero-tolerance policy sends a clear message against drinking and driving.

It’s hard to measure how Washington’s policies around alcohol sales on ferries affect cultural attitudes toward impaired driving, but we do know that cultural attitudes are a key factor in human behaviors. People who believe that their friends, family and community do not approve of drinking and driving are far less likely to drive impaired than people who think that their friends, family and community don’t care. In the context of alcohol sales on Washington ferries, what message are we sending? I’ll let you answer that question.

As a side note, if you consume too much alcohol on a ferry ride you can get a DUI while still on a ferry. Even if you’re just waiting in your car to get off the ferry and haven’t moved yet, you could get arrested for physical control of a vehicle while impaired. If you’re familiar with the physical control law you might argue that it is a defense if the driver, prior to an encounter with law enforcement, has moved the car safely off the roadway. Any person attempting to use that defense would be disappointed to find out that state law declares ferries to be part of the highway system. Technically, when you’re on a ferry you’re parked in the middle of the roadway.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

  Comments