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Vermont Legislative Research Shop

 

Personal Watercraft: Safety and Environmental Impact

Of the 13 million registered watercraft in the United States,1 million are personal watercraft (PWC) or jet-skis. While they make up a small percentage of all boats, they contribute to 36 percent of boating accidents (Wood 1998). "For the most part we have found that people use the craft responsibly, what gives them a bad name is the number of people who show off by irritating other boaters, fisherman, and beach users," says Bud Inman, spokesman for Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Wood 1998). Because of PWCs popularity among users, and the large population of people opposed to their use, the issue of banning PWC use has fueled controversy, national attention, and lawsuits.

Arguments Supporting a PWC Ban

Accidents:

Personal watercrafts have high accident and fatality rates. As noted earlier, PWCs are involved in 35 percent of all accidents with water vessels. The number of accidents and fatalities due to PWC use has been increasing consistently with each year since 1987 (see Table 1).

Pollution:

Widespread PWC use has a significant impact on the environment due to the two stroke engines which leak millions of gallons of unburned fuel into the waters each year (Pearce, 1998). Scientists estimate that 20 to 25 percent of the fuel used in personal watercraft and other watercraft with two stroke engines fail to combust, and is flushed out into the water as raw fuel vapor emissions (Pearce, 1998).

To illustrate the level of pollution, in Michigan, the 82,000 registered watercraft, if each rider expends a full 10-gallon tank, will expend more than 200,000 gallons of fuel into the water. If a watercraft carries four gallons of gas, than approximately one gallon will be directly leaked into the water (Pearce, 1998). Two hours of exhaust emissions from a Jet Ski is equivalent to the emissions created by driving a 1998 automobile 130,000 miles (Stienstra, 1998).

Biological Impact: The pollution emitted from PWCs have a considerable impact on wildlife. When the unburned fuel is released into the water, tiny organisms absorb the chemicals and become extremely sensitive to light, an occurrence called phototoxicity. The Daylight sun then kills the organism, which causes a collapse of the food chain as food sources slowly become eliminated (Pearce, 1998).

Arguments Opposing a PWC Ban

Rights

Manufacturers and PWC users opposing the ban say that it is arbitrary and unnecessary. They say that newer models are cleaner and quieter, and users are becoming more courteous and safe (Stienstra, 1998). They argue that every boat pollutes, and that it is unfair to single out PWCs. Some who oppose the ban claim that it is an unlawful taking of private property and violates equal protection guarantees under the Constitution (Sward & Doyle, 1997).

Accident Numbers

According to John Donaldson, executive director of the Personal Watercraft Association, the portrayal of personal watercraft as dangerous is unfair. The accident and injury rates of personal watercraft are based on the number of PWCs in use. A more meaningful and accurate measure, according to Donaldson, would be computing these rates based on hours of operation (Fauber, 1998).

Table 2 presents a comparison of accident rates for various watercrafts. In terms of raw numbers, personal watercrafts are involved in more injuries than other boating vessels. However, these high injury rates need to be understood in relation to the greater number of PWCs in use. By looking at the injury and fatality rates as a function of the number of vessels, it seems that these rates are not outstanding compared to other vessels. Canoe/Kayak, open motor boats, and rowboats have only slightly lower injury rates. Canoes and rowboats all have a much higher fatality rates per vessel.

Improved PWC Engines

Bombardier, a manufacturer of personal watercraft, says that all models of the Sea Doo watercraft will be modified by this model year, 1999. They will have the D-Sea-Bel Noise Reduction System, which uses sound reduction technology to lower noise emissions. Test results showed that the Sound Pressure Level on the new GTX RFI is 50% lower than the 1997 GTX model. The GTX RFI also features a Rotax Fuel Injection system, designed to reduce the hydrocarbon exhaust by more than 25%, and improves fuel economy by 15%. (Business Wire, 1997).

In addition, future technology may soon allow for four stroke engines to replace the current two stroke engines in use. Technology today does not permit the four stroke engines in PWCs, because they make the vessels less reliable in rough water. Four stroke engines burn only fuel, in contrast to two stroke engines which use oil and fuel, so emissions are considerably cleaner (Pearce, 1998).

National Action

The National Parks are concerned with the disproportionately high amount of pollution they put into the water. The two-cycle engines employed on personal watercraft have the largest percent of unburned fuel passing through the engine and into the water. For MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), the two-cycle outboard engines were the least efficient. Over 30 percent of the MTBE initially contained in the watercraft’s fuel tank was deposited into the water during operation. The results for benzene and toluene were similar (Tahoe Regional Planning Agency 1999).

These fuel additives as well as the benzene and other carcinogens that are deposited into the water by PWC’s are responsible for killing plankton and severely polluting the blue waters of Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada border. While the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency originally wanted to ban the jet skis for their loud noise, it was the extremely high levels of pollution that the two-cycle engines generate that led to the Agencies ban on the watercraft. Effective June 1st, most personal watercraft will no longer be allowed on Lake Tahoe unless they meet certain guidelines such as meeting clean air act emissions limits that take effect in 2006, or if they have direct fuel injection, which already meet the 2006 standards. Also exempted through Oct. 1, 2001 are engines with less then 10 horsepower, engines with electronic fuel injection, rotax fuel injection engines, and any engine that meets the weaker 2001 air quality standards (Lucas 1999)

The National Park Service by May of 1999 announced that personal watercraft will be banned in 62 of its parks and will be allowed in the remaining 25. The NPS maintains control of only 10% of all water areas in the US (Wood 1998). Before arriving at their decision, the NPS held a two month long public comment period about the use of personal watercraft. Results show that 75% of the 60,000 respondents were opposed to the watercraft (USA Today 1999). Spokesman for Olympic National Park Barb Maynes claims that, "when we opened public comment to this issue we were frankly concerned about the level of concern, most people don’t want to come to the wilderness to be assaulted by the same sounds and sights they left behind" (Wood 1998)

State Action

Three states require an adult to be on board when a minor is operating a PWC. Sixteen states have specific speed limitations (USPS 1997).

Florida

Known for its fishing and boating, Florida is a state that thrives on its waterways. However, like many states it is concerned with the issue of personal watercrafts on its lakes and oceans. According to the Florida Marine Patrol, personal watercraft make up only about 10 percent of all boats on the water yet are involved in 30 percent of all boating accidents resulting in injuries (Sergeant 1998). Florida has laws on the books regarding boating but with a heavy workload and small staffs it became difficult to enforce the laws. However with the increase in accidents with these jet-skis, officers doubled the amount of citations given in 1998 from 1997 (Saunders 1998). "We’re turning up the heat…we lead the nation in total number of accidents, injuries and death in personal watercraft," says Capt. Maurice V. Radford of the Florida Marine Patrol. Currently, only those above age 14 can operate personal watercraft and 16 to rent.

Michigan

Michigan State passed a Personal Watercraft Safety Act during the 1997-1998 session. Although Michigan experiences negative environmental effects from the poolution emitted from PWC’s, the bill only addresses the issues surrounding safety. The bill requires Jet Skiers to stay 200 feet from shorelines, establishes a safety program prerequisit to train riders in safety, and prohibits adolescents from operating a PWC without certification. Passing of this bill was difficult, according to the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jon Cisky (R-Saginaw). According to the senator, the bill took almost two years to get agreement. "Getting these bills through was a hell of a lot more difficult than we ever thought it would be," said the senator in an interview. The absence of pollution and noise provisions, according to the senator, is the result of a long and difficult compromise process. Noise and polution provisions orginally included were dropped, but efforts continue to bring the bill in this direction (Pearce, 1998).

Maine

In Maine, the Great Pond Task Force Legislation has taken action to restrict the use of PWC’s on Maine waters. The Legislature enacted an amended version of LD 1730. Public Law 1997, chapter 739, took effect on July 9, 1998. A brief summary of regulations is listed below:

In addition, state regulators are considering prohibition of all motorized boat traffic on some remote lakes, as well as some Maine rivers. The draft legislation calls for changing the focus of restrictions from type of vessel to horsepower. Included in the proposed expanded ban and horsepower limitations are selected lakes within public lands, including some state parks (Associated Press, 1998)

References

Associated Press, 1998. "LURC Considers Extending Boat Ban." December 16. http://www.boston.com/dailynews/wirehtml…/LURC_considers_extending_boat_ban.shtml

Coast Guard. 1999. "Recreational Boating Accident Statistics 1995 and 1996" www.uscgboating.org/stats.html

Business Wire. 1997. "Bambardier Announces its New Personal Watercraft is Quieter." Sept. 17 www.nonoise.org/news/1997/sep14# Bambardier Announces its New Personal Watercraft is Quieter.

Fauber, John. 1998. "Personal Watercraft are often an accident waiting to Happen."

Journal Sentinal Online. July 12. www.jsonline.com/alive/sports/0712jetski.stm

Hughes, John. 1998. "Ban Sought on Jet Skis in National Parks." Associated Press.  Sept.2

Knollenberg, Kurt. 1999. "Future Engines From the Past" The Personal Watercraft Zone http://www.pwczone.com/feature-1.html

Lucas, Greg. 1999. "Tahoe Compromise on Fuel-Saving Engines." The San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, p. A13

McAuliffe, Bill. 1999. "Repeal of Water Scooter Surcharge Advances; House Panel Votes to Drop 3-year $50 Fee, a Target of Ventura’s" Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), February 24, p.3b

McCabe, Michael. 1999. "Watercraft Restrictions Added at 3 Reservoirs;" The San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, p.A11

National Parks and Conservation Association. 1997. "Additional Information on Personal Watercraft (PWC)", Jan. 15. http://www.npca.org/pan/cres-pwc.html

Non-Partisan Quarterly Newsletter. 1998. "Great Pond Task Force Legislation." Publication of the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis for the Maine State Legislature. June.V.2 issue 2.

Pearce, Jeremy.1998. "Jet Skis Targeted as Polluters of Michigan’s Great Lakes" The Detroit News. July 17. P.A1

The San Francisco Chronicle. 1999. "Tahoe OKs Strict Pollution Edict", March 25, p. C3

Sergeant, Frank. 1998. "Fatal Watercraft Deaths Climb after Many Years of Decline." The Tampa Tribune. Nov. 11.

Saunders, Kathy. 1998. "No More Free Ride for Personal Watercraft Users." St. Petersburg Times. Oct. 18.

Stienstra, Tom. 1998. "Park Service to Ban Personal Watercraft." Examiner Outdoors. July 8. www.examiner.com/980708/0708ban.shtml.

Sward, Susan. 1997. "Lake Tahoe Jet Ski Ban Challenged by Manufacturers." The San Fancisco Chronicle. Oct. 31 p.A18

Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. 1999. "Environmental Assessment for the Prohibition of Certain Two-Stroke Powered Watercraft", January 19.

United States Power Squadrons. 1998. "NASBLA Information by State and Territory"

National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. www.usps.org/pwc/NASBLA0.html

USA Today. 1999. "Public Opposition Prompts Restrictions Against Jet-powered Personal Watercraft", February 12,Life; p. 4D

Wood, Daniel, B. 1998. "National Park Ban is Latest Buzz for Watercraft." The Christian Science Monitor. Sept. 21, p.3

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Completed by Stacy Kupperman, Chad Ryan, and Anthony Turi on April 9, 1999.

 

 

Table 1

U.S. COAST GUARD PWC ACCIDENT STATISTICS: 1987 - 1996
YEAR PWC PWC IN PWC IN PWC PWC
SALES* USE** ACCIDENTS INJURIES FATALITIES

1987

29,000

92,756

376

156

5

1988

48,000

126,881

650

254

20

1989

64,000

178,510

844

402

20

1990

72,000

241,376

1,162

532

28

1991

68,000

305,915

1,513

708

26

1992

79,000

372,283

1,650

730

34

1993

107,000

454,545

2,236

915

35

1994

142,000

600,000

3,002

1,338

56

1995

200,000

760,000

4,028

1,631

68

1996

191,000

900,000

4,091

1,831

57

TOTALS:

19,552

8,497

349

*Estimates from the National Marine Manufacturers Association
**Estimates from the Personal Watercraft Industry Association

 

 

Table 2

Recreational Boating Accident Statistics: Boat Types - 1996

Type of Boat

#Vessels

#Injuries

#Fatalities

Injury Rate/Vessel

Fatality Rate/Vessel

Auxiliary Sail

336

49

7

14.6%

2.1%

Cabin Motorboat

1,365

374

38

27.4%

2.8%

Canoe/Kayak

145

60

64

41.4%

44.1%

Houseboat

133

14

3

10.5%

2.3%

Open Motorboat

4,012

1,754

386

43.7%

9.6%

Other

195

92

30

47.2%

15.4%

Personal Watercraft

4,091

1,831

57

44.8%

1.4%

Pontoon

171

48

15

28.1%

8.8%

Rowboat

73

28

42

38.4%

57.5%

Sail (only)

120

33

10

27.5%

8.3%

Unknown

628

135

49

21.5%

7.8%

Totals:

11,285

4,427

709

39.2%

6.3%

 

Source: U.S. Coast Guard