Personal Watercraft Safety

Personal watercraft (PWC) are a type of recreational boat that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Manufacturers estimate that about 200,000 PWC are sold each year and that more than 1 million are in current operation. PWC now account for more than one-third of the new recreational boat sales in the United States.

Although the overall number of recreational boating fatalities has been declining in recent years, the number of personal watercraft-related fatalities has been increasing. At the time of the National Transportation Safety Board’s 1993 recreational boating safety study, there were only 26 personal watercraft fatalities a year, and the Safety Board did not believe that separate consideration of PWC was warranted. However, in 1994, the number of PWC fatalities began to increase noticeably because the number of PWC in operation increased. Preliminary numbers for 1997 indicate 83 PWC fatalities. PWC are the only type of recreational vessel for which the leading cause of fatalities is not drowning; in PWC fatalities, more persons die from blunt force trauma than from drowning. The increase in fatalities and the distinctive way in which fatalities occur prompted the Safety Board to examine the nature of PWC accidents.

The Safety Board initiated the current study to more closely examine fatalities and injury in addition to accident characteristics associated with PWC accidents. The study was not designed to estimate how often PWC accidents occur. For PWC accidents that occurred between January and June 1997, the Safety Board requested that State marine accident investigators provide the Safety Board with copies of their accident reports and complete a supplemental questionnaire prepared by the Safety Board specifically for this study. The goal of the supplemental questionnaire was to obtain additional information concerning the accident characteristics and details concerning personal injury that have not previously been available from State boating accident reports. State accident reports and supplemental information were the sources of the Safety Board’s accident information.

The Safety Board also reviewed State reports of PWC accidents that occurred in 1996. A total of 49 States and Territories provided either copies of their boating accident report forms, automated boating accident report database files, or summary information for 1996 and/or 1997.

Because the States voluntarily provided the Safety Board with accident reports and supplemental questionnaire information, and because of the incomplete nature of much of the information, the Safety Board does not claim that the results of the study are representative of all PWC accidents. The Safety Board analyzed 814 (one-third) of the 1997 reported accidents and examined all of the data for the 1996 reported accidents. Consequently, the Board believes that a substantial number of accidents was available to identify the most important safety issues associated with PWC accidents. Further, the Safety Board’s analysis did not show any biases in the types of accidents in the half-year of 1997 accidents compared to the full year of 1996 accidents. The Safety Board’s interest in truncating the 1997 data collection period to 6 months was based on a goal of providing the results of this study prior to the 1998 summer boating season.

Based on the analysis of the data reviewed, the safety issues discussed in this report include the following:

  • protecting personal watercraft riders from injury,
  • operator experience and training, and
  • boating safety standards.

The study also addressed the need for recreational boating exposure data. 

As a result of this study, recommendations were issued to the manufacturers of personal watercraft, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, the U.S. Power Squadrons, BOAT/U.S., the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, and the States and Territories. The recommendations focus on the safe operation of personal watercraft.