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In the News: A Ban on Jet Skis?

They're fast, furious, they're loud, they're dirty -- a threat to the environment, a menace to wildlife, and, increasingly, a danger to human beings.

That is how more and more people are seeing personal watercraft.

"Call them Jet Skis, Waverunners, Sea Doos, Waterbikes or Water Scooters, they're all personal watercraft," according to the website of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

Kawasaki introduced the Jet Ski, the first commercially successful personal watercraft (or PWC) in 1974. There are now more than a million in the United States, manufactured mostly by five companies. And they are increasingly under attack.

Responding to the complaints, many federal, state and local authorities are taking action. The National Park Service banned them from most of its parks this spring, And now, right before Labor Day, Governor George E. Pataki signed a law that will allow local governments to decide whether or not to ban personal watercraft on New York's waterways.

It might be difficult for the landlocked to understand how so much outrage, condemnation and government regulation could be directed at something that's supposed to be fun.

But the statistics provide the answer: In 1993, there were 26 deaths throughout the nation connected to these watercraft according to a 1998 report from the National Transportation Safety Board. By 1997, the number of annual deaths had increased to 83. Unlike other pleasure craft, these deaths were not caused primarily by drowning, but by "blunt force trauma" - collisions, accidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of injuries connected to personal watercraft was 8.5 times higher than the rate of injuries from motorboats

In New York State, while these craft comprise less than ten percent of the state's registered boats, they are involved in nearly 30 percent of all accidents, according to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Prserveation.

"Controlling jet-skiers is one of our biggest safety concerns," says Emilio Velazquez, of the New York State Parks Police, which operates in city waters. In the last year, over 300 citations were given to recreational users, mostly powerboats. Over a third went to jet-skiers. The charges were as minor as inadequate markings, but also included operating too close to other vessels, or too close to swimmers.

A recent scan of local water-oriented list serves detail clashes. A kayaker wrote of being "buzzed" off Liberty State Park by a four-person Jet Ski. The kayaker called for more enforcement and prosecution. While highly stable in general, kayaks can be easily swamped by the wake given off by the powerful motors of personal watercraft. According to list serve writers, along Brighton Beach and Coney Island, jet skiers "pass the white markers, at least once a day - weaving among the swimmers".

Recognizing that recreational user conflict is partly a matter of education, city and state agencies have introduced mandatory courses in water safety aimed at new or young power watercraft users. Eventually, all users will fall under the new regulations that will be phased in by 2004.

The personal watercraft industry agrees with the need for education, regulation and enforcement, as do advocates of diverse recreation. Shared use of the water's refuge only works if all users obey the rules. To obey the rules, one must know the rules. The rules ought to reflect today's shoreline scene, a place of peace, refuge and fun for swimmers, paddlers, sailors, fishermen, pedestrians - and powerboats too, when they respect the rights of others less powerful.

Peter B. Fleischer, currently writing a book on the New York City waterfront, was formerly a transportation and environment policy advisor to New York City Mayors David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani.

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