How Common are Jet Ski Accidents?

The thrill of skidding through the waves at high speeds on a powerful machine is very alluring to many people, especially those who get their kicks from high adrenaline activities. But without exercising caution, accidents and injuries can and do occur.

How common are jet ski accidents? Jet ski accidents have become more common with the rise in popularity of the sport, and the numbers of PWC accidents are constantly increasing. With speeds up to 70 miles per hour out of the box, they require practice and skill to be driven. Those who don’t respect the power of their watercraft risk having to learn to do so the hard way.

While they are not inherently dangerous, jet skis accidents happen, often due to inexperienced operators, riders who take unnecessary risks, or riders who overestimate their own skill and don’t fully understand the behavior of their watercraft in different situations.

Understanding the Development of the PWC

Water scooters, as they were then termed, were introduced to Europe in the 1950s by motorcycle manufacturers.

The idea wasn’t hugely popular until an Australian motocross fan – Clayton Jacobsen II – designed a version with the rider standing up that included a pump-jet engine rather than the traditional outboard motors. 

Jacobsen made his prototype in 1965 and sold his idea to Bombardier, a snowmobile manufacturer, the following year.

They failed to make a success of it and he then took his patent to Kawasaki. In 1973 Kawasaki brought out its first model called the Jet Ski.

Over the next decade designs returned to the original concept of a seated rider, offering significantly more stability.

New designs also offered the possibility of two riders. Other brands came into the market including Bombardier’s Sea-Doo, the best-selling PWC in the world, and Yamaha’s WaveRunner. 

PWC is defined by the United States Coast Guard as being a jet-drive boat that is less than 13 feet long. Today PWC can achieve speeds up to 70 mph and outsell traditional boats worldwide. (source)

Uses for PWC 

There are ever-increasing recreational and non-recreational uses for PWC. Because of their size and speed, they can be adapted for use in many situations.

As you will see, some of these uses are more associated with accidents than others.

Sport/Recreation

PWC racing is a popular sport where riders compete on a set course, usually on a lake.

These courses use buoys to lay out the course and riders are required to complete a certain number of laps on the course.

Those taking part wear helmets and other protective clothing, and categories are determined by the engine capacity of your PWC. The sport is most popular in the US and Australia.

Fishing

PWC’s are increasingly used for offshore fishing because they are more cost-effective than boats.

They are also fast, easy to maneuver and are fuel-efficient. PWC can reach areas that are hard to access with a boat and are easier to tow and store.

Lifeguarding

PWC’s are a very efficient rescue tool, allowing rescuers to reach victims quickly and effectively.

They can also be used to transport rescue equipment and personnel and even to tow a rescue sled. 

Law Enforcement

PWC are useful as maritime patrol vessels. They can be easily towed to and launched in remote locations.

They can reach a destination quickly and only require one officer, which can be useful when manpower is limited.

They can be used in shallow areas and are more cost-effective than patrol boats.

Causes of PWC accidents

There are many effective uses of PWC use and conversely, also many hazards associated with operating such a powerful and fast machine. We are experienced riders, and we have high speed mods on our skis.

Speed doesn’t necessarily kill, counter to the oft-spoken adage. The physics of speed and impact force are important, but usually other contributing factors are involved.

Most commonly, operator inexperience and errors lead to accidents. Hitting the throttle instead of the brake, lifting off throttle too late, or lifting off throttle and trying to steer (more on that below.)

Jet skis are not inherently dangerous as claimed in the following video. It’s up to the rider to not make the mistakes shown here. Learn slowly. Take a class. Get an experienced rider to show you. Practice in open areas.

I know YouTube is filled with “Jet Ski Fails” videos that people find entertaining. Many of those riders were just lucky they or others weren’t seriously injured.

I have a personal work acquaintance that lost her teenage son several years ago when he thrown from his ski. The ski did not strike any obstacle, but his body tumbled out of control across the water and into a bridge support.

With that somber note in mind, the main causes of PWC accidents are detailed below. Remember, safety always comes first.

Inexperienced Riders

PWC are relatively easy to operate and, as a result, very little training is required to drive one.

Accident reports show a high correlation between inexperience and accidents, with many drivers having never operated a PWC before.

Requirements around age limits and training vary among states in the US and across other countries. The youngest age limit to operate a PWC in the US is 13 years old. Most states require completion of a boating training course and a license.

Design Characteristics of PWC

Some PWC’s are manufactured without brakes, and operators must use a manual reverse mode to slow down.

This can result in accidents, especially when coupled with inexperience that makes handling a PWC challenging. To slow from 60 miles per hour could take up to 300 feet in a PWC.

Also, PWC’s need to accelerate in order to turn, which differs from normal steering practice.

When the PWC is “off-throttle” (or not accelerating) the driver will have no control over the vessel’s direction.

This is one of the leading causes of PWC accidents and is also linked to inexperience. 

Excessive Speed

PWC’s are extremely powerful machines. Some new models are capable of reaching speeds up to 70 miles per hour and their engines have as much as 300 horsepower.

This is a significant amount of power for anyone to handle in a light weight craft, especially for someone with limited experience, and the risk of losing control is very high. 

For parents who are training their kids, be sure to use the training key or programmable speed limiters now available on many skis.

Operator error is the biggest factor in jet ski accidents.

Riding Under the Influence of Drugs or Alcohol

Being around water and boating activities are often combined with drinking and partying.

It is obviously dangerous to operate a PWC when one’s faculties are compromised by drugs or alcohol and it is a leading cause of boating-related accidents.

In the US it is a federal offense to operate a boat under the influence of alcohol. Like driving a car, have a designated sober driver.

Even then, impaired passengers are at risk of falling off or causing problems for the operator. Best advice? Just don’t operate or ride under the influence of any substance.

Weather Conditions

Wet conditions or limited visibility can make operating a PWC even more challenging.

Many drivers fail to check weather forecasts and then get stuck having to return in less than optimal conditions, which can result in accidents if the driver is not confident in dealing with inclement weather.

Reckless driving

Reckless driving is a major cause of accidents. In the US, The Personal Watercraft Act of 2005 defines the unsafe or reckless operation as including the following (source):

  • Becoming airborne or leaving the water while crossing the wake of another vessel within 100 feet
  • Weaving through congested traffic
  • Operating a vehicle at greater than slow/no-wake speed within 100 feet of an anchored or moored vessel, shoreline, dock, person, etc.
  • Operating contrary to the “rules of the road” or following too close to another vessel, including another personal watercraft 
Experienced racers often ride close to each other, recreational riders should leave more space
Racers have experience in riding in packs, recreational users shouldn’t.

Most common PWC injuries

In the US, PWCs are involved in a significant amount of reported boating injuries.

In cases where a PWC strikes another vessel, various injuries occur, the most common of which are bruises and lacerations. The more serious injuries that can result are detailed below. 

Head injuries

These are most common and occur when there is a blow to the head, often resulting in a concussion.

During an accident, the head can make contact with part of the PWC or even with the water, which is very dense at high speeds and can cause serious injury.

Fractures

Wrist and ankle fractures are most common but other bones can also be broken during impact with the water or collision with another vessel.

One rider’s story of a broken leg

Hydrostatic injuries

A powerful stream of water is produced to propel the PWC, called the jet stream or jet drive.

As a result, enormous quantities of water are propelled at huge force and can result in serious internal damage to riders who land in the path of this jet.

Spinal Cord injuries

This is a particularly serious injury, occurring when a person is thrown off the PWC at high speed and their back hits the water on impact, damaging their spinal cord.

This is more likely in choppy water and can result in paralysis and therefore needs immediate medical attention.

Burns

Occasionally a collision can cause the PWC to ignite and result in burns to those involved. These can be serious or minor, depending on how much of the body is exposed to flames.

 

PWC Accident Statistics

The latest statistics available from the US Coast Guard are from 2018. In these there were 4,145 accidents, resulting in 633 deaths and 2,511 injuries.

Of these, 19% of reported accidents involved PWC and 7% of these resulted in deaths.

PWC had the second-highest casualty numbers after open motorboats and most injuries occurred in persons aged between 12 and 30 years.

In total in 2018 in the US, there were 676 reported PWC casualties. (source)

The most common causes and types of injuries captured in the report are illustrated below.

How to Avoid PWC injuries

Equipment Safety

It is important to ensure that your PWC is properly maintained to prevent equipment failure.

One should run through a checklist before taking a PWC out of the water or putting it in the water.

This includes checking cables as well as fuel and oil levels and checking the engine starts before launching. It also needs to be properly stored for winter. 

A responsible PWC owner will ensure that their vehicle has regular services and necessary repairs so that there are fewer risks and, ultimately, more fun in operating it.

Proper maintenance involves attention to the following five areas.

Pre-use Check

This varies for particular models, but the following checklist covers most needs.

  • Smell the engine compartment for gas vapors (this is the leading cause of explosions)
  • Check the battery is properly charged
  • Check the gas tank is full (with the correct fuel type)
  • Check the drain plugs are plugged into the PWC
  • Unplug trailer and remove tow straps before launching
  • Ensure you have your PWC registration onboard 
  • Ensure you have your safety kit and life jackets for all riders
  • Ensure your safety lanyard is attached

After-use Care

This includes cleaning your PWC thoroughly after use and ensuring it is properly drained. This is important because it prevents corrosion and other potential damage to the engine.

Regular Inspections

This is important to ensure that everything is in good working order. Ideally, it should be done after every ride, but at least as often as possible.

This includes checking oil and coolant, inspecting pumps and ensuring there are no loose or damaged parts. (Possible link to article How do you get scratches out of Jet Skis?)

Annual Service

PWC generally require an annual service (or after 50 hours of use). These are important to ensure that your vehicle is safe to use and should never be bypassed.

Winterization

If you live in an area that reaches temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, you need to winterize your PWC. Sometimes this is done together with the annual service.

This involves the following and is crucial to ensuring your PWC runs smoothly next season (source).

  • Thorough cleaning
  • All water drained
  • System flushed with antifreeze
  • Moving parts lubricated
  • Fuel tank filled and stabilizer added
  • Battery removed, charged and stored
  • PWC properly covered and stored

Personal Safety

To avoid injury, PWC operators need to take responsibility for their own safety. All of the following can make for a significantly safer ride.

Life Jackets

Regulations around life jackets vary by country and by state but it is sensible to ensure that a properly fitting life jacket is available for each passenger and those being towed.

Many accidents result in drownings, which can often be avoided if users are wearing a life jacket.

It is particularly important that children are wearing life jackets and that these are properly sized.

A rack of life jackets for jet skiers to wear for safety
Always wear a properly fitted life jacket when riding

Lower body clothing

Due to the risk of internal injury when falling off a PWC, it is recommended that riders wear neoprene shorts or a wetsuit.

There are numerous variants of these available and, besides offering protection, they also keep you warmer on chilly days.

Helmets

Helmets are generally not a legal requirement, but they certainly increase your safety by protecting the head from injury.

The more congested the water is, the more important it is to consider wearing a helmet, especially for those under the age of 18.

Helmets also offer the advantage of being able to strap on an action camera or goggles.

Other gear

In addition to those listed above, most states also require that you have the following on board

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Sound signaling device (whistle or horn)
  • Registration documentation clearly displayed

Avoid Drinking

Alcohol is a leading cause of PWC accidents and can significantly impair a driver’s judgement, coordination and reaction time.

It is not recommended to operate a PWC while under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

Don’t Speed

Speeding is also a common cause of accidents. Ensure you maintain a good distance between yourself and the next rider by controlling your speed and allowing yourself space to stop if necessary.

While speed is thrilling, it is important to ensure that you are always in full control when operating a PWC.

High speeds are not enforced by law, except for the requirement of maintaining a “no wake” speed within 100 feet of a shoreline.

Awareness

It is important that a PWC operator is aware of surroundings and weather conditions.

Bad weather can come in quickly and awareness is important in reacting to incoming storms etc.

Additionally, being aware of other boat’s wakes is essential to correctly predict how it will impact your craft.

One also needs to be aware of and obey signage that dictates rules for behavior on the water.

Ignition Safety Switch Lanyard

The ignition safety switch lanyard, widely known as the kill switch, should be attached to your wrist when operating the PWC.

This will ensure that it comes off with you if you fall and kills the engine.

In seven states it is a legal requirement that boat operators of a motorboat 26 feet or less in length (including PWC) must be physically connected to the emergency shut off switch.

Training

It is not always a legal requirement to hold a license before you operate a PWC.

However, it is always a good idea to get some training to ensure safety on the water as those without boater education can put themselves and others at risk.

Most accidents are caused by operator error and many of these could have been avoided with proper training.

In the US, 36 states have mandated a requirement for operators to have at least completed an online boating license course.  

There are many training courses available including online, video and classroom offerings.

In the US, a PWC is considered a boat and is subject to the same boating laws.

The requirements for who needs a boating license to operate a PWC differ by state and age requirements also vary. Not following state requirements can result in a fine. 

PWC Lift

PWC are regularly left floating in water, tied to a dock.

This can cause a build-up of matter on your PWC, raising the chances of engine issues while being ridden.

Using a lift will raise your vessel out of the water while docking, ensuring your PWC stays clean and dry between uses. We use standard inexpensive drive-on plastic floating docks to store our skis at the marina in summer and trailer them in winter.

You can see the growth on my RXT in that post that occurred over a 3 week period after the marina’s dock leaked and partially sunk. The material created enough drag to slow my top speed by 5 mph.

But for those with a waterfront house and a large budget, you can actually buy this pricey 2 unit lift in manual or electric versions directly from the Amazon link, which honestly surprised me quite a bit, along with a little jealousy as well.

Final Thoughts 

PWC are a great pastime for water activity enthusiasts and can certainly be fun and thrilling.

However, they are fast and powerful machines that need to be safely operated to prevent a plethora of serious accidents from occurring.

By taking precautions and ensuring safety measures are in place, one can reduce the chance of injury and ensure hours of summer fun.

Articles contain affiliate links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. The site is also an affiliate for other brands covered in our the content. We may earn a small commission when readers purchase through these links at no extra cost to the buyer.

Tim Conner, M.D.

Tim Conner, M.D. started boating in 1974. He has been involved in recreational boating continuously since then. Dr. Conner has been active in boating and watersports safety education for decades. He rode his first jet ski in 1997, and rejoined the personal watercraft arena in 2012 with a Sea-Doo GTX 155, followed by 2 supercharged SeaDoos. Scuba certification came in 1988, and he and the family have traveled the world snorkeling and scuba diving for decades. The family has recently taken up paddle boarding. Click the photo for a lot more.

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