Personal Watercraft Safety Expert Article

30% of all boating accidents in the United States involve Personal Watercraft (PWC). According to the NTSB, in 84% of these accidents, the operator was inexperienced and had not received education or instruction on the operation of the PWC. In this article, Michael Gerard reflects on his experience working in maritime law enforcement as a Marine Unit Deputy to share insight on PWC safety practices.

PWO safety expert witness

PWC Safety

The most common type of PWC accident is collision with an object, a larger vessel, or another PWC. Accidents also often involve the operator or passenger being thrown from the watercraft while jumping the wake of another boat, usually at high speeds. Alcohol use is a large contributing factor to these incidents. Alcohol impairs judgment, slows reaction times and affects one’s balance. At popular vacation destinations, you’ll find groups of people, boats of various sizes, and PWCs sharing the same waterways, and alcohol will almost inevitably find its way into that mix. Unsafe operation of a boat or PWC is not only dangerous for the operator, but for bystanders and other boaters.

Though their size and price point makes them an accessible entry point into recreational boating, PWCs are powerful and highly maneuverable, requiring more training and experience than the casual adventure-seeker may appreciate. In fact, 73% of PWC accidents involving rented watercraft occurred within the first hour of use, and in half of the accidents the operator had little or no prior experience on a PWC. These statistics point to the fact that training, education, and experience make for fewer boating accidents, especially where PWCs are concerned.

Boating education course completion is required of PWC operators in all but 5 states. This training typically emcompasses safe operation of the personal watercraft, rules of the road, safety requirements, age restrictions, and emergency operations.

Some states reinforce PWC safety by requiring rental businesses to adhere to regulations pertaining to a minimum age requirement for renting a PWC, and additional instruction specific to the operation of a PWC. Maritime law enforcement officers often provide public education on boating safety rules and requirements, in addition to enforcing the laws that govern watercraft operation and U.S. Coast Guard rules and regulations.

PWCs & Boating Under the Influence (BUI)

The influence of alcohol or drugs often affects the rider's mental, perceptual, and physical capabilities to operate a vessel in a safe and reasonable manner, including speed, distance to other watercraft and objects, no-wake zones, and regulations pertaining to nighttime operation. Where alcohol or other drugs are involved, Robson Forensic can provide toxicologists to quantify intoxication and address issues of impairment.

PWC Safety Requirements

Although a personal watercraft is exempt from several mechanical requirements of other vessels due to its configuration, a PWC is subject to the same safety and registration requirements:

  • Riders must wear the proper personal flotation device (PFD)
  • The watercraft must have current state registration
  • A fire extinguisher must be on-board
  • An audible signaling device must be on-board
  • A distress signaling device must be on-board depending on time of day and waterway
  • Most states require an engine-stop lanyard
  • Most states have a minimum age restriction for operation

In an effort to reduce the number of catastrophic accidents and through an agreement with the United States Coast Guard (USCG), most personal watercraft manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to limit the speeds on production PWC’s to 65 mph. Additional efforts to reduce PWC accidents and the associated injuries and fatalities have been implemented by the United States Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIA).

These entities provide recommendations for personal watercraft safety which include:

  • Mandated safe boating education
  • Minimum age of the operator should be 16
  • A Coast Guard Approved PFD suitable for a PWC
  • Wetsuits worn by all passengers
  • Operated during daylight hours only
  • A PWC should be operated in a reasonable manner
  • Mandatory instruction and demonstration provided when renting a PWC

Although all states mandate the use of PFD’s for all passengers, wetsuits should also be worn for safety reasons. The majority of users are not made aware of the risk of injury associated with falling off the back of a personal watercraft and being exposed to the water jets. Wearing a wetsuit serves to protect the PWC operator or passenger from catastrophic or fatal hydrostatic pelvic injury.

Many states permit children younger than 16 to operate a PWC. Boating education requirements vary by state, with only a few states requiring education specific to a PWC. Some states also have regulations that include the operation of a PWC at night and requiring rental companies to provide instruction and demonstration to the renter prior to use. To view a breakdown of Personal Watercraft Regulations and Rental Requirements by state, click here.

Personal Watercraft Incident Investigations

The experts at Robson Forensic can speak to PWC operation, Rules of the Road and the training and education necessary for the safe operation of personal watercraft on all waterways. When appropriate, our marine engineers are available to reconstruct an incident. We also have professional mariners who can speak to the responsibility of commercial vessels.

For more information, contact the author of this article or submit an inquiry.

Featured Expert

Michael Gerard, Police Practices & Premises Security Expert

Michael Gerard

Police Practices & Premises Security Expert
Michael Gerard is a police practices and premises security expert with over 26 years of law enforcement and security experience. As an expert witness, Mike applies his expertise to forensic casework… read more.


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