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Why Jet Skis Kill

Reckless Endangerment on the Water

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

It was a bright day for boating at Striker Lake in Rusk County, Texas, June 7th, 1998. As her kids relaxed in chairs in two feet of water on the shoreline, Mrs. J.M. Kennedy took her son Kenny out for a ride on a personal watercraft (“jet ski”). They cruised around, did some cool 180-degree spinouts, and headed back to shore.

As she approached the beach, Kennedy’s vessel skimmed in the direction of her five-year-old daughter. When she released the throttle and pressed the red kill-button, the steering went dead, but her vessel did not slow down. The 500-pound craft aquaplaned through a gathering of family and friends and struck Kelly Ann in the head and upper torso before coming to a stop on the shoreline almost out of the water. Five-year-old Kelly Ann, J.M. Kennedy’s daughter, died shortly after at Henderson Memorial Hospital.

All tragedies are unique. All jet skis, on which so many tragic accidents occur, are alike.

In 1998 the National Transportation Safety Board criticized the basic design of all personal watercraft: “Personal watercraft have no braking mechanism. They coast to a stop, and while coasting, there is no turning ability.” Tom Ebro, president of Aquatic Risk Management in Florida, concurs. “What makes personal watercraft so ultra-dangerous is the fact that it will not steer when you suddenly have a surprise and let off the throttle.” Unlike traditional boats “jet skis’ are rudderless. And when the throttle is off, a speeding jet ski is like a car on ice. It can’t stop. It can’t turn, and the driver has no control.

Captain Brad Cuthbertson, a water-safety expert from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii who performs “accident reconstruction” in Hawaii, believes “the product is unsafe and should be recalled and retrofitted” with rudders. A growing body of safety experts believe that, contrary to industry claims, the vehicles themselves, not simply the riders, cause numerous injuries and fatalities throughout the U.S. Personal watercraft these critics believe, are a menace. not only to their own riders, but to swimmers, kayakers, boaters, anyone who shares the water in good faith.

According to the 1999 yearly report from the California Department of Boating and Waterways: “In collisions between personal watercraft and vessels other than pwc, the pwc operator was nearly 3 times as likely to be exclusively at fault.”

Engineer-inventor Charles Willis explains the difference between safe, traditional boats and personal watercraft. “Boats have propellers, something down in the water, and the drag slows down the boat when the motor is off. The hull creates water resistance and so motorboats stop much faster than jet skis. PWCs are very different than boats. There is nothing underneath the hull. There’s no drag. The product has a big flaw: it can’t stop.” A Yamaha diagram puts stopping distance between 260 to 470 feet. The owner’s manual for Willis’ Kawasaki Ultra-150 says: “Leave 348 feet to come to a stop.” That’s longer than a football field -- without steering, without control.

Despite known defects and dangers, public agencies seem paralyzed. No federal or state agency, not the U.S. Coast Guard or California’s Department of Boating and Waterways, takes clear responsibility for these conflicts and catastrophes on the waters.

Justin Hues.
Justin Hues.
Deborah Boles.
Deborah Boles.

Steering loss in personal watercraft is a major cause of injuries and fatalities. Twenty-one-year-old Justin Hues was visiting Lake Lewisville in Texas. When he and his friend rented two jet skis from a Polaris outlet, they never received any instructions before they went for rides on the water. PWC are notorious for sharp turns, bursts of speed, skittish maneuverability. Suddenly Justin turned in front of his friend, who was riding in the second vessel behind him. The young man quickly let up on the gas to slacken speed and turn away. But without thrust, the water rocket would not steer. He smashed into Justin, who died on life support. Justin’s parents, Jim and Connie Hues, eventually became co-founders of a grassroots Coalition: “Parents and Families for Personal Watercraft Safety.” The Coalition is focused on safe technology, not bans or restrictions. “Since my son was killed,” Jim Hues notes derisively, “the industry has doubled the horsepower of pwc.”

Nita Boles, also co-founder of “Parents and Families for Personal Watercraft Safety,” lost her own daughter in a similar loss-of-steering accident in Texas. Mrs. Boles, a registered nurse, was working at a nearby hospital on July 4th, 1998, when her 16-year-old daughter met a friend at Lake Texoma. The teenagers went out for rides on two personal watercraft. Deborah’s friend was bearing down on her, and in order to avoid a collision, her friend let off the throttle and tried to turn away. Desperately she tried to steer, but the vessel shot in a straight line like a rocket, broadsiding Deborah at 30 miles per hour. Deborah suffered massive head injuries and died on the way to the hospital. A witness noted that Deborah’s friend, in shock, kept saying: “It wouldn’t turn; it wouldn’t turn!”

Nita Boles reflects on that fateful day: “When Deborah’s friend let go of the throttle, she lost control of the craft. In that one crucial moment, the loss of steering was the deciding factor in my daughter’s life.”

Ebro of Aquatic Risk Management says that jet ski instruction manuals are confusing. They tell operators to stay on the gas when a collision is imminent. But it is difficult, says Ebro, sometimes impossible, to act against instinct and habit. “In a near collision, the natural instinct is to try to slow down and steer out of harm’s way. Personal water craft steering is counter-intuitive.”

Every summer Nita and Ed Boles, Jim and Connie Hues, and other brave families of jet ski victims put up posters around Texas and Oklahoma lakes, warning youth about the inherent dangers of personal watercraft. “The industry,” says Boles, “has put its customers in danger.”

Statistics

The PWC tragedies of the Boles, Hues, and Kennedy families are part of a nationwide pattern. Personal watercraft have the most gruesome safety record in boating. In 1999 personal watercraft were 18 percent of boats, but were involved in 44 percent of injuries in California. In 2000 they were 19 percent of registered boats, involved in 45 percent of injuries. Since personal watercraft were introduced in public parks in the 1980s, there is not a single year where jet skis were not involved in disproportionate numbers of accidents. California consistently ranks second after Florida in the number of boating accidents. The personal watercraft is the only vessel where the leading cause of fatality is not drowning. (And most drownings can be prevented by simply wearing a life-vest.) In contrast to boating accidents, most fatal pwc accident victims die from blunt-force trauma. Seventy-five percent of pwc accidents are collisions.

The Industry Response

According to Monita Fontaine, Executive Director of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association (PWIC): “Safety is a priority for the PWC industry.” That “priority,” however, is missing from the marketing campaigns of Yahama, Polaris, Bombardier, and Kawasaki, where strong, muscular men rip up the water. Industry advertisements feature the allure of power, speed, even superiority over lowly living things. One Polaris photograph of a zooming jet reads: “It’s enough to make webbed-toes curl.” A Kawasaki slogan reads: “Own the world!” A Polaris poster reads: “Thumb your throttle at the world!”

Industry representatives disavow all responsibility for disproportionate numbers of jet ski accidents, even steering-loss fatalities. The industry places the onus on operators, not the design and operating features of the vehicle. PWIA Director John Donaldson writes that “the unsafe and imprudent behavior of a very small percentage of pwc operators causes accidents.” The official position: “It is the inappropriate use of PWC by uninformed or inconsiderate operators—not the vessels themselves -- which can create conflict on the water.”

Official Reports on Vehicle Defects

A series of official studies published between 1995 and 1998 contradict industry safety claims:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, through the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) collected evidence and testimony from emergency departments in American hospitals. The NEISS study focused on product steering defects. “When faced with collision, most victims took their hands off the throttle in an effort to avoid collision…the victims’ steering ability was severely compromised.”

In August 1997 the American Medical Association published an article entitled Personal Watercraft: A Growing Health Concern. “The rate of emergency department treated injuries related to pwc is about 8.5 times higher than the rate of those from motorboats.”

In 1998 the National Transportation Safety Board presented its definitive, long-overdue report. It was not only the large number of accidents, “but the distinctive way in which fatalities occur,” that prompted the Board to examine the nature and design of personal watercraft accidents, especially steering loss. The report makes grim reading. “Steering difficulties were evident in many of the pwc accident reports examined in the study.” In Four Bears Park in Michigan, on June 29, 1997, a 29-year-old driver lost control of his Sea Doo. The vessel skidded over the water into a swimming area and struck six children, ages 5 to 12, and then hit a seventh person on the beach. In Texas, according to the Board’s report, a 24-year-old swerved in front of his mother. It was a typical hey-look-mom stunt, but the driver lost control, and the 400-pound vessel hit her in the back. She was pronounced dead the next morning. The accident “involving a mother and son on a Texas lake illustrates the consequences that can result from steering difficulties.”

The NTSB 1998 report, now a key piece of documentation in liability suits, provides overwhelming evidence that personal watercraft are unsafe, that defects in design cause injuries and fatalities throughout the U.S.

No throttle, no steering. No rudder, no way to stop. What else could be wrong with personal watercraft? Plenty.

According to Tom Ebro, there is no enclosure to protect a rider in a collision. “The physical forces of an accident are transferred directly to the rider upon impact. That is why I see so many head injuries.” Deputy Sheriff Chris Perry, who patrols Lake Berryessa in Napa County, calls the jet ski a “rocket with a seat and handlebars. They flip on a dime, switch directions in a fraction of a second.” Riders are often ejected, or impaled on the handlebars. Experts note that, because of tunnel vision in performing stunts, and because of blurred vision from water spray, riders cannot keep a lookout according to the rules of the road. LeMay Collins was heading toward shore at Metro Beach, Michigan, when she got water in her eyes. Her vision blurred, she did not see Greg Carnell, a middle-aged man wading in the water. She rammed into him, and Greg is a paraplegic today. “I had water in my eyes,” said Collins on 20/20 TV. “I didn’t know there were people in the area. I am deeply sorry I can’t take back what happened.”

Product Liability Suits Kept Quiet

According to relatives of jet ski victims, the industry is paying out millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements. Product liability suits may be legion, but they are also incognito. “There’s a propensity for the industry to hide the number of lawsuits,” says Nita Boles. “The public does not know how widespread the problem is. And the manufacturers protect themselves.” Pre-trial settlements are off the record and avoid public scrutiny. Nevertheless, a major battle, legal and ethical combat, is taking place, not only within the U.S. Coast Guard and State boating agencies, but in the hallways of U.S. Courtrooms as well -- a battle between manufacturers and the victims of personal watercraft maladies.

Tom Ebro has monitored boating accidents for 40 years, and he has participated in more than 80 personal watercraft liability suits -- Shelton vs. Yamaha; Irving vs. Polaris; Burchett vs. Kawasaki; Kirby vs. Bombardier; Jones vs. Bombardier; Allen/Fesseden vs. Lake Sonoma Resort, California -- the list is huge. According to Ebro: “There is a set of standards followed by designers of all products. First, they have the user in mind. But second, the designers are expected to anticipate mis-use, and manufacturers are supposed to design out dangerous propensities in the craft or product. The pwc industry has failed to comply with basic standards.”

“I Was A Lone Voice”

As a water safety expert for recreational and commercial boats in Hawaii, Captain Brad Cuthbertson has participated as an expert witness in more than 100 PWC product-liability suits -- “I’d say closer to 200 suits in civil litigation.” “ In all but three,” Cuthbertson recalls, “the industry made settlements out of court.”

Cuthbertson is a boating enthusiast who got involved in personal watercraft in the mid 1980s. In the “early years,” pwc were built for the purpose of winning competitions and races. “It was hard to get hurt back then,” Cuthbertson says. “Riders wore helmets, and race craft were used in controlled competitions by trained, experienced operators.” Captain Cuthbertson himself officiated competitions and performed special stunts for local TV. In those days, “the biggest, baddest pwc maxed out at 32 horsepower” -- a sharp contrast to Yamaha’s latest 150 horsepower model, advertised on ABC Sports.

It was the internecine horsepower war that turned Cuthbertson against the industry. As an employee of Kawasaki and Yamaha he urged manufacturers to restrict the use of pwc to trained riders, to accommodate safety devices, and to hold down the speed. He created the first hands-on safety course for personal watercraft, but his safety campaign met resistance. “I was a lone voice, and I was blown away by their lack of safety concern.” Every year the horsepower and the hazards increased. “The industry took its 32-horsepower racing vehicle, used by trained operators, racheted up the speed, then marketed it to kids and novices in the guise of a safe, family toy.”

Most of the lawsuits that involve Cuthbertson as a witness are settled before trial, and litigation seems to be ineffective in making the industry accountable. There are hundreds of suits, but “ in each case, the manufacturer acts like the pwc accident never happened before.” The same type of case goes through litigation over and over without changing public policy.

Robert Murray, inventor of the “Blow-Back” rudder, agrees: “The manufacturers go to great lengths to keep information quiet. When they settle a case they require a gag on the information.”

Nita Boles wants Federal and State agencies to connect the dots, the suits and complaints against personal watercraft. “The pwc industry gets a sort of closed case-by-case shelter. No data bank is kept. There is no Safety Commission to which the industry must answer. Manufacturers don’t have to report the number of times they are sued, or the number of times persons complain. Not to the Coast Guard, not to the NTSB, not to Congress. In absence of effective oversight, the industry has a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Members of the Coalition of Parents and Families say they are frustrated by delay and inaction. U.S. Coast guard officials claim they have no authority to force the industry to retrofit jet skis with steerable rudders. (Two PWC rudder systems are already patented: Ride Technology’s “Wavetrax” and Robert Murray’s “blowback” rudder system). Yet the same Coast Guard is providing favored treatment for the industry. The service defines personal watercraft as “Class A inboard motorboats,” boats intended for transport of persons” on water. The definition is a euphemism. Jet skis are stunt machines designed for thrills. By their very design, PWc cannot comply with the Coast Guard’s own standards as currently written -- standards regarding capacity, loading,flotation, electrical and fuel systems. Every year the Coast Guard grants exemptions to new personal watercraft models. Granting exemptions, to be sure, is a normal legitimate procedure when vehicles are safe in design and operation. The Coast Guard, however, undermines its own principles by granting exemptions to boats that “adversely affect boating safety.”

Cal-Boating Should Review Its Policy

Far from being “singled out unfairly,” personal watercraft are the most protected, privileged vehicles on public waters, operating with tacit permits -- a permit to pollute; a permit to make obnoxious noise in violation of laws against disturbing the peace; and a tacit permit to operate outside the traditional “rules of the road.”

The Department of Boating and Waterways is California’s leader in providing safe enjoyable boating. While it is not a law enforcement agency, Cal-Boating promotes uniform enforcement of boating laws through training programs for officers and officials. With Cal-Boating support, two laws regarding personal watercraft took effect in January 1998. The first law raised the minimum age for operating a vessel (over 15 horsepower) from 12 to 16 years of age. The second prohibited “spraying down” of other vessels, and wake jumping within 100 feet of any vessel. Cal-boating pursues a noble mission in protecting public safety on California’s vast, wondrous labyrinth of rivers, lakes and estuaries.

Its historic mission, however, is in jeopardy. Personal watercraft are destroying the effectiveness of state-wide programs. While California educational literature is full of useful safety tips for boaters, Cal-Boating videos are full of misinformation about personal watercraft. The new “Smart-Boating” video sounds like a Kawasaki promotion, when a presenter says: “Let’s not give pwc a bad rap. ..The boats themselves are designed to be safe. It’s the operators that are causing all the problems.” The don’t-blame-the-machine refrain is not only mistaken; it is dangerous and contradicts evidence from the NTSB safety report.

As the Coalition of Parents and Families notes, no amount of education can make a defective product safe. Given the severe limitations of personal watercraft, it is difficult to comply with the rules of the road, the navigation codes that provide uniformity and safety on inland waters.. A double-standard is developing on public waters in California: one standard for boats, another standard for pwc.

Local law enforcement officials, to be sure, work extremely hard to achieve safety on the water. But the use of personal watercraft puts harbor patrols in a dilemma. If officials are lenient, public safety is in danger. If they enforce the rules of the road as written, they make it hard, if not impossible, for riders to do stunts and have fun on the water. Cal-Boating has yet to provide public analysis of law enforcement implications on the use of rudderless, steering-defective thrill machines at high speeds in public water.

With all their known maladies -- defects that bloody American waters every Spring and summer -- the use of personal watercraft in public waters cannot be reconciled with traditional rules of the road and principles of boating safety. Any vehicle that forces operators to choose between stopping or steering in an emergency situation should be removed from the water. The precondition of safe boating is a safe boat.

Which comes first in California: industry sales, or public safety?

Nothing can be done to bring back young Justin Hues or Deborah Boles, or many other victims of steering-defective watercraft. But California’s permissive jet ski policy can be reversed so that future tragedies can be prevented. Majority leader Kevin Shelley’s bill to authorize local jurisdictions to ban personal watercraft is dead until next year. But cities and counties already have the authority, as well as the responsibility, to ban unsafe vehicles and protect public safety.

Nita Boles believes that her daughter’s death on a Sea Doo was not a meaningless event, a mere statistic. She is turning anguish into action. “We are still trying to make sure we remember Deborah. If she had to die, then maybe other people won’t have to die too.”

Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. He can be reached at rockyspad@hotmail.com

Published in In Motion Magazine August 16, 2001.

Also see:

  • Jet Ski Frenzy: Must Californians leave the Wilderness in Search of Peace and Quiet? by Paul Rockwell

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