ⓘ Personal watercraft-related accidents. The number of personal watercraft-related accidents has increased with the popularity of personal watercraft since their ..


ⓘ Personal watercraft-related accidents

The number of personal watercraft-related accidents has increased with the popularity of personal watercraft since their introduction during the late 1960s. The use of the term "jet ski" for all types of PWCs is a misnomer; Jet Ski is a registered trademark in the United States for a line of PWCs manufactured by Kawasaki). With the increased use of personal watercraft since their inception, the hazards accompanying their use have also increased. According to U.S. government reports, most accidents are associated with rental operators, underage operators, under-trained and undereducated boaters and a variety of factors associated with recreational-boating accidents. Due to their affordability, ease of use, and relatively low transportation and maintenance costs, personal watercraft have significantly increased the number of water-based enthusiasts in the U.S. This rise in participation has created conflicts between the various boating segments in the U.S. and a need for additional boater education. Recreational-boating accidents are the second-largest transportation-related cause of injury in the U.S.


1. Background

One Person watercraft are vessels designed for recreational use on the water, carrying between one and four passengers. The U.S. Coast Guard defines PWC as "craft less than 13 feet in length designed to be operated by a person or persons sitting, standing or kneeling on the craft rather than within the confines of a hull". The original PWCs were manufactured during the mid-1950s in the United Kingdom and Europe. Ten years later Bombardier Recreational Products BRP began manufacturing PWCs in the USA under the name Sea-Doo. BRP left the PWC business shortly thereafter, and in 1973 Kawasaki introduced a "stand-up" watercraft designed for a single operator with a tray for standing or kneeling, in place of a seat. By the late 1980s "sit-down" models had appeared on the market, allowing the rider to be seated similar to a snowmobile or motorcycle seat. These sit-down models were made by Kawasaki 1986, Yamaha 1987 and BRP 1988. Polaris and Arctic were two American companies which entered the market during the early 1990s.

PWC have an inboard engine with a screw-shaped impeller to create thrust and propulsion for steering. They are small, fast, and easy to maneuver; PWCs do not use external propellers, making them safer for swimmers and wildlife. The user-friendly properties of PWCs have contributed to the increase in popularity amongst less-experienced watercraft users. To increase safety, a number of U.S. consumer groups suggested that all boats should utilize the jet-drive mechanism also called a pump-jet employed by PWC manufacturers since this would reduce the risk of propeller injuries.


2. Accidents

All boating accidents in the United States either occur on state- or federally-patrolled waters. Whether state or federal, reports must be filed for a predefined level of damage and are compiled by the United States Coast Guard which uses the reported data for its annual BAR - Boating Accident Report - Statistical Reports. As automotive law-enforcement officers outnumber boating law-enforcement officers in the U.S., federal government reports for watercraft are comparatively fewer. The National Transportation Safety Board NTSB conducted general investigation of the recreational-boating accident-reporting system in 1998 and compiled its findings in a published report. The NTSBs investigation emerged with data seen as representative of overall recreational boating; an example follows from the reports conclusion:

Inattention attributed to 307 operators, inexperience attributed to 296 operators, and inappropriate speed for the operating conditions attributed to 246 operators were the most frequently cited causes that contributed to the PWC accidents. One or more of these three causes were associated with 70 percent of the 814 accidents. A fourth cause, improper lookout 153, was associated with about one-fifth of the accidents.

According to the aforementioned interpretation of the NTSB report:

  • The vast majority of accidents over 90 percent were caused by operator error.
  • The NTSB report did not conclude that PWCs are disproportionately represented in boating-accident statistics.
  • There is a significantly higher association with accidents for rental operators nearly 25 percent than is the case for the general boating population; however, this may be related to the higher percentage of rental operators.

A study performed by the Red Cross in 1991 concluded that during the research period, PWC accidents were not disproportionate to their use by the boating population. This was later supported by a Coast Guard study presented to the State of Vermont in 1996. Both studies presented findings that the comparative accident rates for personal water craft were not disproportionate to their use by the boating population; the reports emphasized the high level of attention and publicity that PWC accidents receive.

During the late 1990s, several states changed their laws regarding the use of personal water craft. These amendments included the introduction of limits for wake-jumping, the prescribed use of a PWC within 100 feet 30 m of another vessel, "spraying" activities, mandated operation of PWCs within 150 feet 46 m of the shoreline, and age restrictions for operators the operator age was raised from 12 to 16 years for all affected states, with Florida also introducing a mandatory boating-safety course for those under age 18. According to the State of California, these laws have directly contributed to an over-50-percent reduction in accidents.

A notable fatality occurred on July 1, 2012 in Little Sabine Bay near Pensacola Beach, Florida; retired astronaut Alan Poindexter was killed when the PWC he was riding was rammed by one operated by one of his sons.


3.1. Causes Reckless driving

The leading cause of PWC accidents among riders in 2007 was reckless or careless driving. According to the National Transportation Safety Board in the U.S., this accounted for 26.3 percent of all PWCs involved in accidents in 2007. Reckless driving has been defined in the Personal Watercraft Act of 2005 in the U.S. as follows:

Every personal watercraft shall at all times be operated in a reasonable and prudent manner. No person shall operate a personal watercraft in an unsafe or reckless manner. Unsafe personal watercraft operation shall include, but not be limited to the following: 1 Becoming airborne or completely leaving the water while crossing the wake of another vessel within received a puncture wound to the left side of his neck."

According to the NTSB, 24 percent of reported PWC accidents list steering problems or loss of control as contributing factors; in Florida, it is the second-leading cause of PWC-related accidents. PWC manufacturers have been working to develop a system to prevent off-throttle steering. Modifications have been made to solve this problem in newer PWC models.


3.2. Causes Driver inexperience

Because of the ease of operating a PWC, little training and experience is required to perform basic maneuvers of a PWC. The NTSB reported in 1998 that 32 percent of operators involved in accidents reported that they had operated a vessel between zero and ten times prior to the accident; 86 never, 75 once and 225 between 2 and 10 times. Of the 712 operators who were asked about training, 84 percent said they had received no training and the other 16 percent participated in some boating training. Regulations concerning training courses and age limits for operators vary by state and by country. In the U.S. the minimum operator age ranges from 12–18 years; young operators may require adult supervision on the vessel and training in accordance with local laws.


3.3. Causes Internal Orifice Injuries

One particularly serious type of personal watercraft injury occurs when a female rider falls off the back of the craft and into the path of the crafts high-pressure water jet. The jet thrust is powerful enough to push water into the riders orifices, which can result in severe internal injuries to the riders vagina, rectum or anus, and possibly death.

For example, in 2014, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District, Division One upheld in full a San Diego County jury verdict against Bombardier Recreational Products and two other defendants in favor of two plaintiffs injured simultaneously in a single 2007 fall from a PWC, which included awards, respectively, of $3.385 million and $1.063 million in compensatory damages with liability divided in equal portions among the three defendants. The appellate court also affirmed awards of $1.5 million in punitive damages against BRP alone for each plaintiff adding up to $3 million in punitive damages which were based on the jurys express finding that BRPs conduct manifested a "reckless or callous disregard for the rights of others".

However, on the other hand, there are also examples where the owner, operator, and/or user of the personal watercraft have been found entirely at fault by a jury without any fault whatsoever on the manufacturer. For example, in 2010 in a case argued in the federal court of the Middle District of Florida, a jury found the 2006 Sea-Doo safe and not defective as to design, warnings, manufacture, and that BRP was not negligent in the design of its product. BRP maintained the Sea-Doo was reasonably safe, state-of-the-art, compliant with industry standards as well as the U.S. Coast Guards standards, and was not the cause of plaintiffs injuries and/or accident. The plaintiff testified she did not have any conversation with anyone concerning the use of protective gear, such as wet suit bottoms or equivalent protective clothing and was not provided any safety information before riding. During the trial, the operator admitted he saw, but chose not to read, the onboard warning label. He also admitted that he did not read the safety recommendations in the operator’s guide nor watch the safety video. Counsel for BRP in the Thomas case, Scott Sarason, commented on the case that," Statistically speaking, the probability of the type of incident involved in this case is extremely rare. Owners, operators and passengers of personal watercrafts must think safety first. It’s important for people to realize that these watercraft are classified as boats. That’s why the watercraft industry has been working diligently with authorities like the U.S. Coast Guard to introduce programs like Know Before You Go’ in an effort to prevent accidents and injuries.” The Thomas case is just one example, of a handful, where such a rare accident is caused by extraneous persons or factors.

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