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Virginia and North Carolina offer special amenities to residents and visitors: beautiful oceans, bays and waterways. One of the most popular aquatic pastimes is the use of a personal watercraft (PWC), including jet skis, waverunners, waterbikes and waterscooters, representing a market that has ballooned in the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, the explosive growth has led to more personal injuries due to PWC collisions and accidents. This article explores PWC safety, insurance coverage and some pertinent regulations.

PWC stands for personal watercraft. Trade name craft, such as Sea-Doo® (Bombardier Recreational Products), Waverunner® (Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A.), and JET SKI® (Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A.) are types of PWC. Personal watercraft are defined as motorboats less than 16 feet in length that are powered by jet pumps, not propellers, where the persons stand, kneel, or sit on, rather than inside the boat. PWCs are operated by one person, and often have seating space for others. Some models have seating for up to four riders (including the operator).

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) defines personal watercraft as Class A inboard boats, making the vehicle subject to the majority of rules and requirements which other powerboats follow.

The Personal Watercraft Industry reports that based on recent research, the normal purchaser of a new PWC is about 41 years old with a household income of just over $95,000. Statistics indicate that roughly 85 percent are male, 71 percent are married, and 69 percent have owned a powerboat before purchasing a PWC.
While some PWC models can hit 60 mph or more, recent studies indicate that most owners do not race or make aggressive moves. More than 80 percent are simply riding with family and friends for short ventures, towing skiers, discovering new areas and entertaining friends. Not even one percent of those studied indicated that they use their craft for racing purposes.

When PWC accidents do occur, however, they can be severe. According to U.S. Coast Guard figures, nearly 50 percent of all boating accidents are PWC-related. Almost half of those lead to injuries; some 75 percent of severe, collision-related PWC injuries occur with two or more PWCs; and deaths related to PWC accidents generally are from blunt trauma, such as a hit to the head, not from drowning.

All too often, alcohol plays a role in waterway accidents. Statistics released through the USCG to the Insurance Information Institute show that over the last decade, accidents related to alcohol use by recreational boat users accounted for 7.5 percent of all cumulative boating mishaps. Even more frightening to those using the waterways is that eight out of every 10 victims in fatal boating accidents were not wearing a life jacket.

What Insurance Applies?

When it comes to PWCs, the majority of Jet Ski, Sea-Doo, and other jet-powered craft aren’t covered by homeowners policies. Tony Alcala, marketing and operations manager for Sun Coast General Insurance Agency Inc., which has been writing PWC policies for years, notes that there can be confusion with customers regarding just what is and isn’t covered. “There’s about a 50 percent ratio of consumers that think their homeowners policy covers their PWC,” Alcala commented from his Laguna Hills, Calif., office. Virginia-based Boat U.S. Marine Insurance, with offices across the U.S., offers a PWC insurance program. So, any person operating a PWC should check with their insurance agent about proper coverage for their liability and actions on a PWC.

PWCs are a great deal of fun because of their maneuverability and power. It is for these same reasons that PWC can be dangerous if not operated responsibly. The potential for danger is illustrated in the 2003 boating accidents in Virginia showing that although PWCs comprise just over 10% of all registered boats, they were involved in 22.6% of all boating accidents. Although PWC are involved in a disproportionate number of boating accidents (property damage and personal injury), they have a great safety record when it comes to boating fatalities. The main reason for low fatality rates on PWC is because all PWC operators, passengers, and persons being towed by a PWC, are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket. Other boat operators and passengers are only required to have wearable life jackets on board, but are not required to wear them. Also, the jet-drive propulsion is safer than a propeller motor. However, the jet drive intake will attract loose items and pull them through the jet drive much like a vacuum. Items that are too large to enter the intake area will be held against the intake grates until the engine is turned off. The jet intake is powerful and will suck anything into its impeller, damaging the pump.

Many accidents are caused by the PWC operator’s inexperience, inattention or failure to look out for hazards, swimmers or other boaters. Operators should take this responsibility by challenging themselves to learn as much as possible about their craft and staying alert during operation. They should continuously scan the water, especially to check the area behind their PWC before making any turns. Excessive speed causes or contributes to many accidents each year because manufacturers are making PWCs that reach speeds of 65-70 mph. Operators should keep their speed under control and not try to test the limit. Traveling at faster speeds amplifies everything, including tunnel vision, the potential for injury and less reaction time.

For some operators, the temptation to jump wakes or sneak between boats is difficult to resist. The operator with mature judgment will recognize these situations as extremely dangerous. Besides not knowing which direction the other operator may decide to go, large ships and barges will not be able to stop quickly. Remember, boats don’t have brakes. Many injuries also occur when two PWC operators collide, as the watercrafts as so mobile and turn so quickly, this can cause sudden turning accidents.

Some Specific Virginia Laws

Virginia has a number of laws covering personal watercraft operation (North Carolina laws are not included below). Some key Virginia PWC laws:

Restrictions on operation

A. It shall be unlawful for any person to:

1. Operate a personal watercraft unless he is at least sixteen years of age, except any person fourteen or fifteen years of age shall be allowed to operate a personal watercraft if he (i) has successfully completed a boating safety education course approved by the Director and (ii) carries on his person, while operating a personal watercraft, proof of successful completion of such course. Upon the request of a law-enforcement officer, such person shall provide proof of having successfully completed an approved course;
2. Operate a personal watercraft unless each person riding on the personal watercraft is wearing a type I, type II, type III, or type V personal flotation device approved by the United State Coast Guard;
3. Fail to attach the lanyard to his person, clothing, or personal flotation device, if the personal watercraft is equipped with a lanyard-type engine cut-off switch;
4. Operate a personal watercraft on the waters of the Commonwealth between sunset and sunrise;
5. Operate a personal watercraft while carrying a number of passengers in excess of the number for which the craft was designed by the manufacturer; or
6. Operate a personal watercraft in excess of the slowest possible speed required to maintain steerage and headway within fifty feet of docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, people in the water, and vessels other than personal watercraft. Nothing in this section shall prohibit a personal watercraft from towing a person with a rope less than fifty feet in length.

Reckless Operation

A person shall be guilty of reckless operation who operates any personal watercraft recklessly or at a speed or in such a manner as to endanger the life, limb or property of any person, which shall include, but not be limited to:

1. weaving through vessels that are underway, stopped, moored or at anchor while exceeding a reasonable speed under the circumstances and traffic conditions existing at the time;
2. following another vessel or person on water skis or similar device, crossing the path of another vessel, or jumping the wake of another vessel more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard to the speed of both vessels and the traffic on and the condition of the waters at the time;
3. crossing between the towing vessel and a person on water skis or other device; or
4. steering toward an object or person and turning sharply in close proximity to such object or person in order to spray or attempt to spray the object or person with the wash or jet spray of the personal watercraft.

If you, a family member or friend have been injured due to a boating or PWC accident caused by careless or negligent conduct, we can provide specific legal advice to you during a free legal consultation. E-mail us at our law firm ( ) or call us at Hajek, Shapiro, Cooper & Lewis, P.C.

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