Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of the summer season at the shore, is also the last big boating weekend of the year.

One more chance to fish, crab, do a little tubing or wakeboarding, or just enjoy a sail or cruise across the bay before the demands of school, fall sports and yardwork call visitors home.

If you're out boating this weekend, you can take comfort in the fact that you're less likely to meet a drunken boater than you used to be.

In the past 10 years, boating accidents in which alcohol use is a factor have declined nationwide, part of a general decline in people's tolerance for drunken behavior on land or sea.

Not long ago, it was considered no big deal for people to pilot boats after they had been drinking. At the Jersey Shore, it was just part of boating culture.

But just as our attitudes toward drunken driving have changed, so has our willingness to give a pass to people who operate boats while impaired.

In fact, in New Jersey, the two issues are linked. Boaters who are convicted of operating while intoxicated face stiff penalties that include losing their driver's license. After a third offense, they could lose that license for 10 years.

Those tough penalties help explain why drunken boating incidents seem to be down anecdotally in New Jersey. But that doesn't mean they don't still occur.

The Coast Guard's Recreational Boating Statistics, released in May, show that there were nine boating accidents involving alcohol in New Jersey in 2011, resulting in three fatalities. Obviously, that's three too many.

And in spite of the national decline, the Coast Guard says alcohol use remains the leading contributing fact in fatal boating accidents. Drunken boating seems to make the difference between an accident in which passengers are injured and an accident in which they are killed.

Education is an important factor in reducing those accidents. The Coast Guard says that only 11 percent of boating fatalities occur on boats where an operator has gone through boating safety instruction. New Jersey, with more than 160,000 registered recreational vessels, requires such instruction.

Of course, safe, sober boating is a choice. Just as drivers must take responsibility for not getting behind the wheel when they've been drinking, boaters need to understand the dangers of mixing alcohol and recreational boating.

After all, we all want our visitors, and their boats, back next year.

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