Personal Watercraft Safety

Personal Watercraft Safety

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A personal watercraft is defined by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Class A inboard vessel, under 13 feet in length, powered by an inboard motor and a jet pump, that is designed to be operated by a person or persons standing, sitting, or kneeling on the craft rather than within the confines of a hull. What this means is that a personal watercraft is a small, unenclosed boat that is powered by an engine inside the vessel which pulls in water through a port in the bottom of the boat and expels it at high pressure through an aimable nozzle that controls direction.

Personal watercraft have only become popular for use by the general public in the last ten years or so, but have proven in that short time to be very dangerous both to the operator and to other people sharing a body of water with jet skiers. There are several reasons for this. The main hazard in personal watercraft use is the low visibility of jet skis. Because they are so small, personal watercraft are very difficult to see, especially when both they are moving quickly and a boater is moving. Another cause of accidents is the general lack of knowledge how another boater will behave. A lake is, in essence, a huge, empty, trackless arena where boaters may drive wherever they wish, often at high speeds.

While personal watercraft safety courses aren’t mandatory in most areas, there are some States that require operators to have a certificate proving that they passed a certified course. There are already some private organizations offering these courses, but each course is not approved by every State. There are two courses, though, that are certified everywhere and are generally agreed upon to be the most comprehensive ones available. These classes are offered by the United States Coast Guard and by the U.S. Power Squadrons, a volunteer program that works through the Coast Guard. These courses are usually available for a low price and a small materials fee.

These Coast Guard safety courses have several different formats, but all cover the same material. There are periodical classes that could be daily, weekly, or anything in-between. There are also classes that are self-paced, and are passed by a proctored examination. All these classes cover several aspects of the safe operation of personal watercraft. Some of the topics in the U.S. Power Squadrons Jet

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There are several reasons why we need regulations on personal watercraft. The most important ones are that personal watercraft are very dangerous and that they cause accidents on the water. Several factors contribute to this, but a safety course makes boaters aware of the issues and dangers involving personal watercraft.

Personal Watercraft Are Dangerous and Cause Accidents One way jet skis cause accidents is that they are very hard to see when one is boating. Their small size and the speed at which they can move combine to make it extremely difficult to discern them, especially if a person is boating at high speeds also. This low visibility causes accidents fairly often. These accidents can occur simply because the drivers are not paying attention. This inattention is a common problem when boating because driving a boat is seen mainly as a recreational activity. In truth driving a boat is holding responsibility for the lives of the passengers and other boaters on the water, just as the driver of a car is responsible for the lives of his or her passengers and those of the other motorists on the highway Another factor in accidents on the water is the inability to know ahead of time where a boat will steer. Because there are no set routes, it is nearly impossible to know if a boater is going to turn before that person actually initiates the maneuver. If that boater does not realize that there is a personal watercraft nearing his boat and he turns towards it, there is a chance of collision. The faster the two vessels are moving, the greater the chance of an accident. As most personal watercraft aren’t equipped with horns, they have no way of alerting the boat driver that they are near. This can result in collisions that wouldn’t have happened if there was some method of warning other boaters of the presence of a personal watercraft.

Personal watercraft drivers are often paying even less attention than other boaters to the way the boaters around them are driving. Often jet skiers are completely oblivious to the other vessels on the water, except for the possibility of jumping a particularly large wake. The drivers are almost always piloting their jet skis in a terribly hazardous manner. This is inherent to the nature of personal watercraft, as they are agile, maneuverable, and quick. Drivers usually twist and turn, pull 180-degree spins, jump the wakes of other boats, and exhibit several other dangerous mannerisms. This makes it impossible to know what a jet ski driver will be doing next. There is no way to predict a jet skis path. Even if a boater tries to avoid the personal watercraft, there is always a chance the driver of the jet ski will not see the boat and turn directly into that boat’s path of travel.

Official Statistics

The truth is that a large percentage of accidents involving personal watercraft result in injury or death. There has also been an alarming increase in such accidents, and in the repercussions. See table 1 for more detailed information.

Table 1: Personal Watercraft Statistics
1990 241,376 1,162 532 28
1991 305,915 1,513 708 26
1992 372,283 1,650 730 34
1993 454,545 2,236 915 35
1994 600,000 3,002 1,338 56
1995 760,000 4,028 1,631 79
1996 900,000 4,091 1,831 54
1997 not available 4,070 1,812 84

1997 & 1998 Sea Tow Services International, Inc.
from the CG Boating Accident Report Database

These numbers are extremely high. From 1996 to 1997, personal watercraft related fatalities rose a whopping 56%. In 1997, 45% of accidents involving personal watercraft resulted in serious injury, while 2.1% resulted in someone’s death. This trend is simply unacceptable, and something must be done to stop it.

Information obtained from the State of California (California Boating Safety Report, 1997) shows that jet skis are involved in a disproportionately large percentage of accident-related injuries. Personal watercraft accounted for 17% of vessels registered in California in 1997, but were involved in 52% of the injuries and 22% of the fatalities. As far as the causes of personal watercraft accidents go, there is rarely a single obvious reason for an accident, but there are several common factors. Keep in mind that in some accidents, there are two or three factors reported as the causes, so there is an overlap in the percentages. The most common are excessive speed (54%), operator inexperience (53%), and operator inattention (50%). Operator inattention and excessive speed also accounted for 26% and 23% of the State’s on-the-water fatalities in 1997, respectively.

According to the United States Coast Guard’s 1997 Boating Statistics Report, of the 4,070 accidents involving personal watercraft 2,486 were collisions with another vessel. This is over 60% of the accidents, and illustrates just how easy it is to not see a personal watercraft while boating. There were 4,555 injuries in reported boating accidents in 1997, 40% of which involved personal watercraft.

These numbers suggest that there is certainly a problem with personal watercraft accidents. This type of vessel is very unsafe. They are very small, difficult to see, and have no horn to warn other vessels. Each year, more and more people are being injured and dying as a result of personal watercraft accidents. These are just regular people. Many aren’t even operating personal watercraft, they just happen to be on a boat that a jet skier collides with. How much longer can we let this happen?


I am proposing that the federal government pass legislation that requires a person to have completed and passed a personal watercraft safety course, certified on a State-by-State basis, before they are allowed to rent or operate any personal watercraft. Operation by minors is to be restricted in the following manner: an adult that has passed a certification course must accompany, on the same vessel, anyone under the age of sixteen if that minor is to captain the personal watercraft My research shows that if the federal government were to require all personal watercraft operators to have passed either the Coast Guard safety course or the Power Squadrons safety course with a satisfactory score on a standard, comprehensive examination, there would be a significant decrease in the numbers of accidents, injuries, and fatalities involving personal watercraft. Because this type of vessel is so different from a standard passenger boat, there are several special safety issues that should be addressed. Even people who have owned and safely captained boats for years may be dangerously unknowledgeable about the safe operation of a personal watercraft.

As the statistics show, the numbers of accidents and deaths are growing nationwide, while there is nothing being done to counteract it. Even if acted on this very day, it would take months, perhaps years, to get such a policy up and running, while 84+ lives could have been saved.

In order for a course to be certified, it must be shown as providing comprehensive instruction in personal watercraft operation, rules and regulations of boating, the low visibility of personal watercraft, required safety gear and accessories, navigation basics, water markers (buoys), docking, accident reporting, safety checklists, personal watercraft structure and basic mechanics, and any other issues found to be needed upon implementation. These courses should provide both dry and wet instruction, as some things simply cannot be taught satisfactorily without the students having tried hands-on. To gain a certificate showing that they have passed the course, students must pass a comprehensive final exam that covers information from all parts of the instruction and must prove that they have the skills necessary to safely control a personal watercraft.


There would be several benefits to society if this proposal were to be passed. These include fewer PWC accidents, an increased awareness of issues surrounding personal watercraft, and less loss of life resulting from collisions.

Fewer Accidents Involving Personal Watercraft

If this proposal were passed, it would mandate that everyone operating a personal watercraft have a knowledge of their craft, the environment they are operating it in, the issues involving visibility and awareness, and the rules that regulate boating and behavior on the water. This would dramatically decrease the number of accidents that occur and thus the number of injuries and deaths that result from those accidents. While there is no way of predicting concretely the number of accidents that would not happen if the personal watercraft operator had passed a safety course, well over three-quarters of the accidents in 1997 were caused by persons that hadn’t passed a certified safety course.

Increased Awareness of Personal Watercraft Safety Issues

Another benefit of passing this proposal would be more awareness of the issues surrounding personal watercraft. While boaters who don’t own personal watercraft will have no reason to take the classes, they will certainly hear about them, and will learn about the issues involved with personal watercraft. They will be more aware of personal watercraft while boating, and will tell other boaters about the problems, thus increasing the amount people pay attention and look for personal watercraft while boating.

Most personal watercraft owners also own boats, and that too will decrease the number of accidents that occur. If this policy is passed, the awareness of personal watercraft safety in the boating world will increase, and everyone will start to keep a better eye out for jet skis on the water.

Lives Saved as a Result of Increased Safety

Saving lives is also a great benefit of personal watercraft safety courses. There is no possible way to measure how much the loss of lives because of personal watercraft accidents is detrimental to society. What weight is given to a human life? In wars, loss of life is a given and must be accepted, but in recreational boating there is no way to justify any death whatsoever. It cannot be argued in any way that some loss of life is going to happen no matter what because while that may be true, we as a civilized society must do all we can to minimize those deaths and prevent them in every way that we can.


The studies mentioned previously and countless others show that accidents involving personal watercraft, and the injuries and deaths that result from them, are on the rise. There is something we can do, though. If the government were to mandate that all persons operating personal watercraft must obtain a safety certification, there would be a significant decrease in the number of accidents. There would be fewer injuries and deaths nationwide if this legislation were to pass through Congress, and this is of unquantifiable benefit to society. There can be no way to justify not passing this policy, and no possible method to weigh the consequences if we do not. Suffice it to say that there will be numerous lives saved, and even one life is worth the small amount of time and effort it will take to implement this proposal.

Works Cited

Boating Statistics — 1997. United States Department of Transportation, United States Coast Guard. COMDTPUB P16754.11

California Boating Safety Report 1997. United States Coast Guard Auxiliary District 11NR
Personal Watercraft Statistics. CG Boating Accident Report Database, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Personal Watercraft Industry Association
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