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Controlling Use of Personal Watercraft Part 1: How Safe Is the Wavy Ride?
By Dan Gunderson
August, 1997

Also see Part 2: Loud Splash in Still Waters

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4, RealAudio 3.0 28.8

Minnesota lawmakers are considering additional restrictions on the use of watercraft commonly known as "jet skis." The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says the number of jet skis in Minnesota is at an all-time high, and complaints and accidents are increasing. The DNR says jet skis make up three percent of registered boats in the state, but are involved in 30% of reported accidents.

WARM SUNSHINE and a light breeze make for a perfect August day as Justin Piprud fires up his jet ski and idles away from shore. When he gets about 100 feet away, past the slow-speed zone required by state law, he opens the throttle and throws the machine through a series of high-speed spins and turns.

The 17-year-old owns more than a dozen jet skis which he rents to tourists on the shore of Leech Lake. He rides for fun every day, sometimes spending up to ten hours on the water.

The funnest time is when it's really wavy, 'cause nobody's out so you have the whole lake to yourself, and you just get like five feet of air; you just bring the nose down and cut through the wave and it splashes you. Sometimes it knocks the wind out of you 'cause you hit so hard, but it's worth it ... definitely.
Patrick Holm also tries to ride every day. He says he just likes to get out on the lake and go fast.
I like to go full blast - you know: pin it down - then I hop on the hood and ride for awhile, just rage out there, then I hop back on the seat for a while. Then do some 360s and try to get the nose under water. It's just a total blast out there.

Justin Piprud and Patrick Holm say they have never had an accident, and they always keep a safe distance from boaters and swimmers.

There have been eight people killed in jet ski accidents since 1990. Hospital emergency rooms in resort areas say they aren't seeing a rash of jet ski injuries, but many doctors think they see only the serious injuries like concussions and broken bones, not the more common bruises and sprains.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Jeff Granger says most minor accidents and near misses are never reported. He says the high speeds and the tricks riders like to do make the jet ski more dangerous than other watercraft, and Granger says speed and alcohol are factors in most accidents

People just have to use common sense. And boy, if you don't have it, there's no pill to give it to you.
Granger says most complaints about jet skis are that they're too noisy or that riders are speeding too near docks and swimmers.
Jet skiers really do have to clean up their act - the problem is it's become a high speed baby-sitter. There was a 7-year-old running a jet ski; shouldn't have been out there. His parents were on shore. He came toward shore, panicked, and locked up on the throttle: ran up on shore and ran over a 2-year-old baby and a pregnant woman.
Granger says, amazingly there were no serious injuries in that accident. Others have not escaped so lightly.
These are pictures of an accident that happened earlier this year. It was a T-bone type accident. The bow of the one hit right in the middle of the other. The man's leg was severed. Terrible accident, but that does happen. Just lucky he wasn't killed.
Granger believes more restrictions will not make jet skis safer. He says that can only be achieved by better education and enforcement of laws now on the books. While DNR officials say the number of accidents involving jet skis is increasing, most accidents are investigated by county sheriffs. That means comprehensive accident statistics are difficult to track.
This is Dave ... yes we do. It's $150 a day during the week; $50 delivery.
Dave Plia sells and rents personal watercraft at a Bemidji dealership. He says dealers do everything they can to educate riders about safety. All new personal watercraft come with a safety video, and, like most dealers, Dave Plia explains all laws and safety rules before he sells or rents a jet ski.
There's a new law this year: you cannot go within a hundred feet of shore or docks or boats. Swimmers are the big one. You CANNOT go within 100 feet of a swimmer.
Plia says most people operate personal watercraft within the law and follow common sense safety rules. He says a few bad apples are making the entire industry look bad.

Plia says the popularity of jet skis is strong after five years of record sales, and the machines come with more gadgets and more power every year.

The 1200 ... those stock out of the box will go 60 miles an hour. That's fast for any watercraft, but that's the American way: bigger, better, faster. But you have to make sure you can handle it. You don't wanna hand it to a 16-year-old kid that's never ridden before. You want to make sure everybody is properly trained.
There are now more than 23,000 registered personal watercraft in Minnesota. DNR Conservation Officer Jeff Granger says they are now a part of the recreation scene in Minnesota, and, much like snowmobiles 20 years ago, operators must learn to be more responsible if they want to avoid a public backlash.

Controlling Use of Personal Watercraft Part 2:
Loud Splash in Still Water