Man on a personal watercraftHeading out onto the lake in a personal watercraft (also commonly called a PWC or by brand names like Jet Ski, Sea-Doo or WaveRunner) is a fun, exciting way to enjoy the summer sun. However, there are safety concerns with PWCs that operators should keep in mind, whether they’re renting one for the first time or planning to loan out their PWC to friends and family.

If you’ve been injured in an accident involving a personal watercraft, and someone else was at fault, we highly recommend you contact an experienced personal injury attorney immediately. A good boat accident attorney will begin working with the insurance companies directly, allowing you to focus on healing.

Personal watercraft have grown in size and power since they were first introduced in the late 1960s, but even so, the general public still perceives them as small, accessible and easy to operate. This perception is actually part of their danger. In fact, inexperience is all too often a cause of PWC accidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB found that about 84% of personal watercraft accidents involve operators who have received no boating safety education or instruction.

As a class, PWCs are involved in a significant number of serious injuries and deaths. In 2017, personal watercraft accounted for 17.5% of all vessels involved in accidents, * according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Seven percent of all boating deaths, and 23.7% of all boating injuries, involved PWCs.

There are consistent differences in how people are killed in accidents involving personal watercraft versus other boating fatalities. Most boating deaths result from drowning. When it comes to PWCs, collisions are the most common kind of accident, so more people die from blunt force trauma than from drowning.

Two-thirds of PWC accidents involve two vessels, usually another personal watercraft, the NTSB found. However, people on PWCs also collide with piers, tree stumps, or motorboats. One reason behind a number of these collisions is that operators frequently release the throttle when they see a hazard ahead. When the engine is cut, steering is lost, but the craft doesn’t immediately stop – momentum carries it forward in the direction it was going when the engine power switched off. Like other vessels, PWCs have no brakes and must coast to a stop.

Some newer PWCs are made to allow some off-throttle steering, but even when these models are being used, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources advises operators to keep the throttle depressed during turning, even in an emergency. While this is the right move on a PWC, it’s counterintuitive to new users, who, when panicking, are likely to employ what they know about every other motor vehicle they’ve ever operated or to obey a natural instinct to simply try to stop before hitting an obstacle.

This helps explain why inexperience is one of the most common contributing causes of personal watercraft accidents. The top four causes of PWC crashes (in order of frequency) found by the NTSB are:

  1. Inattention
  2. Inexperience
  3. Inappropriate speed for the operating conditions
  4. Improper lookout

One or more of the first three causes listed above were associated with 70% of accidents, while “improper lookout” contributed to 1/5 of them.

Seaworthy magazine’s review of insurance claims found inexperience at the heart of many PWC incidents, with owners involved in only 18% of accidents.1 Siblings were operating the craft in 29% of the claims reviewed and friends of the owners were doing so for the remaining 53% of claims.2 Young people, sadly, are among the most frequently injured and killed. In 2017, 10 of the 46 people killed and 194 of the 430 injured nationwide on PWCs were age 19 or younger, according to the Coast Guard.

Minnesota has age restrictions for operating PWCs. For example:

  • Those under 13 years old may not operate a PWC, even with an adult on board.
  • Those 13 years old must either have someone at least 21 on board or have a watercraft operator’s permit and be in continuous visual observation by someone at least 21.
  • Those 14-17 years old must either have a watercraft operator’s permit or someone at least 21 on board.

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) argues for higher age limits, stating that no one younger than 16 should be allowed to operate a personal watercraft.3

For all operators and riders, recommended safety equipment includes:

  • Eye protection such as sunglasses with a strap or goggles
  • Footwear such as soft soled shoes or water socks
  • A wetsuit to protect against cold water as well as “severe lower body orifice trauma” that results from a seat-first water landing at 40 mph
  • High impact life jackets, which are U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets designed to stay intact and attached to your body at high impacts
  • Gloves

(Sources: MN DNR and the AAP)

While completing a boating safety course is required to receive a youth watercraft operator’s permit in Minnesota, anyone can take the course to better prepare for a fun, safe day on the water. Understandably, Minnesota PWC rental businesses are required to give instruction in how to safely operate the craft.

If you’ve been injured by someone operating a personal watercraft, contact us today. We’ve recovered more than $125 million on behalf of clients, and we’re ready to assist you.

Besides Rochester, we serve the following major southeast Minnesota cities: Red Wing, Winona, Mankato, Austin, Albert Lea, and Owatonna, and all outlying communities, as well as the cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, and Bloomington. We also serve the Iowa cities of Mason City, Charles City, Osage, Spencer, Garner, Forest City, and Northwood and the Wisconsin cities of La Crosse, Onalaska, Sparta, Viroqua, River Falls, Ellsworth, Whitehall, and Black River Falls.

*A note about language:

Federal agencies involved in traffic safety have banned use of the word “accident” for more than 20 years, and with good reason. However, we use the word “accident” on our website, even though we know it has implications that run contrary to our professional thinking and training, because we recognize that “accident” is the word most commonly used in online searches when people are looking for help after being injured in a crash. If you’d like more information about this topic, please see our blog, “Car Accident or Car Crash?”


1,2 BoatUS: Seaworthy Magazine


Other sources:


U.S. Coast Guard