They can add an element of fun and adventure to a day on the water, but they also add an element of danger. Whether they are called wave runners, jet skis, sea doos or some other moniker, personal watercraft (PWC) are popular recreational options for many, but because of additional safety concerns, there are different rules for them. Simply put, operating a jet ski could be compared more to a motorcycle on the water, while the average motorboat being more akin to a pickup truck.

One question that often arises is why there are so many PWC accidents. The U.S. Coast Guard says PWCs are involved in more collisions than any other type of boat. BoatUS, the Boat Owners Association of the United States, compiled information about why these types of watercraft are involved in accidents so often and lists two major reasons. Later in the article, we will also detail special rules that apply to PWCs.

The first reason for increased accidents involving PWCs is inexperienced riders. Insurance claims and Coast Guard statistics indicate that the majority of PWC accidents involve riders between the ages of 11 and 20.  Vehicle owners themselves were only involved in 18 percent of the accidents. This means that those involved in the majority of PWC accidents were not the vehicle’s owner.  Rather, the statistics show that an owner’s younger family members were involved in 29 percent of PWC collisions and that friends using the PWC accounted for 53 percent of accidents. Also, statistics show that 84 percent of PWC accidents involved operators who had not received any boating education, and 73 percent had been riding less than one hour when the accident occurred.

A second reason for the high number of PWC accidents involves the way the boats handle. Records show that almost 70 percent of PWC collisions were with another watercraft, most of which were other personal watercraft. Combined with inexperience, operators often had difficulty judging how fast they were traveling over a certain distance. Steering is greatly impaired when a PWC isn’t shooting water from the stern. There is limited maneuverability when traveling at slow speeds and virtually no maneuverability if the throttle is closed. When an inexperienced rider releases the throttle to avoid a collision, they lose steering. Tapping the throttle will regain steering but increases speed, which can be difficult for an inexperienced rider to handle safely. PWCs also can make much sharper turns than other boats, which can also cause the operator to lose control.

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The Coast Guard notes that 30 percent of all boating accidents involve a PWC, and 36 percent of boat injuries involve them. According to a report by BoatUS, “PWC collisions result in more injuries and deaths than any other type of PWC accident. And, unlike all other types of boats, PWC operators are more likely to die from blunt-force trauma than from drowning. Most often, riders strike another boat due to inattention, excessive speed, or loss of control. The collisions typically throw the rider and passengers off the boat, often resulting in broken limbs, sometimes from simply striking the water at high speed. Broken teeth and noses are common injuries after being in a collision, usually after striking steering bars.”

There are special rules for PWCs in Texas, as listed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and detailed in the Texas Water Safety Act, include:

  • PWCs cannot legally operate at night (between sunset and sunrise)
  • They should not be operated within 50 feet of another PWC, boat, shore, person or another object except at slow speeds (fast enough only to maintain steering ability).
  • It is also illegal for a PWC operator to jump the wake of another boat.
  • Everyone who rides a PWC must have a life jacket (personal flotation device). Inflatable vests do not meet requirements.
  • To legally operate a PWC in Texas, a person must be at least 13 years old. Those born after Sept. 1, 1993, must have successfully completed a boater education course.
  • If PWCs have a kill-switch or cut-off, this must be attached to the operator or his/her clothes.

Robert Box, Lake Ranger Sergeant at Possum Kingdom Lake, said there are a high number of PWCs on the lake, especially during summer months. He said the most common safety concerns are people violating the 50-foot rule. Because of this – and operator inexperience -- collisions involving PWCs are more common than those involving other types of boats

Box said it is important to remember the following things when operating a PWC:

  • They steer differently than a boat,
  • They have no brakes,
  • You must maintain 50 feet of distance between watercraft unless idle
  • Don’t exceed the recommended capacity for the number of people riding on the PWC,
  • Be sure you know how to operate the PWC before leaving the dock,
  • Stay sober,
  • Do not jump the wake of another vessel,
  • Avoid going into fishing areas and shallow water.

Rules and regulations which apply to regular motorboats also apply to PWCs, according to the Texas parks & Wildlife Department. More information on operating PWCs is available here.