WASHINGTON – The number of personal watercraft accidents in Ocean City has fallen significantly since the state enacted stricter safety regulations in 1996, according to a review of six years of Coast Guard recreational boating accident reports.
But while the number of personal watercraft accidents in Worcester County stayed well below the 1995 peak of 60, they still account for a disproportionate share of boating accidents there, 71 percent compared to about 22 percent statewide.
Despite their successes, state boating safety officials and the businesses that rent personal watercraft — often called Jet Skis — said some accidents are unavoidable in the over-crowded waters of the popular beach resort.
“They say there’s more accidents involving Jet Skis, but that’s because there is at least double the amount of Jet Skis than boats,” said Brian Cree, owner of Waterways Performance Watercraft.
But the Ocean City Business and Rental Licenses Department said just 50 to 60 of the 151 licensed rental boats in the city are personal watercraft. Statewide, less than 7 percent of the more than 200,000 registered recreational boats are personal watercraft, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
A Capital News Service analysis of Coast Guard data from 1995 to 2000 showed that the number of recreational boating accidents in the state remained stable at around 300 a year. But the number of accidents in Ocean City fell, from 71 in 1995 to 41 in 2000, driven by a sharp drop in personal watercraft accidents.
The CNS analysis showed that personal watercraft accidents in Worcester County fell from 60 in 1995 to 28 in 1996; 25 in 1997; 42 in 1998; 33 in 1999; and 29 in 2000.
The summer of 1995 was the worst for personal watercraft accidents in the state, said Julie Hofmann, boating and personal watercraft safety coordinator for Maryland Natural Resources Police. Five people died statewide that year, including one person on a rented personal watercraft in Ocean City, she said.
After that, the state cracked down.
Over the winter of 1995/1996, the state raised the legal age to operate a personal watercraft to 16 and made stricter rules for rentals, including mandatory safety and driving instruction for all customers.
“A lot of accidents happened and the rentals weren’t focusing on educating the renter. They were just getting them on the water,” Hofmann said.
Natural Resources Police began to heavily enforce personal watercraft laws in 1996, said Cpl. Brett Brinkley, hiring retired officers and college students to help out. After four summers, Brinkley said, the increased visibility of patrollers has reduced the problem.
Hofmann said police stopped 1,101 personal watercraft operators in Worcester County last year, issuing 222 citations and 492 warnings. Brinkley said rental businesses have also made significant efforts to promote safety.
“But the renters just don’t listen,” he said. “You can tell people as much as you can to educate them, but a lot of these young people just don’t listen.”
That can pose a problem on the crowded waters around Ocean City with personal watercraft, which can be tricky to handle with their motorcycle-like handlebar throttles.
“People don’t realize how quick they’re going,” Brinkley said. “Then, when they are approaching an object and realize they are going too fast, they usually panic and let off the throttle. Then there is no steering.”
Bill Gossard, researcher for the National Transportation Safety Board, said while personal watercraft accidents have dropped since 1995, “there is still a fairly substantive amount.”
“Collisions, always of course, could be dangerous,” Gossard said, noting that there are no sides on a personal watercraft to protect riders if they hit something.
Rental owner Cree said most accidents he has seen are minor.
“They are called accidents because they are accidents,” he said. “Accidents happen on the road all the time.”
Joe Emm, owner of Island Water Sports in Ocean City, blames the crowded waters for the accidents.
“Without a doubt, Ocean City is the most highly used area in Maryland,” he said. Hofmann said 90 percent of Maryland’s personal watercraft rental operations are in Ocean City.
Emm said rental owners get unfairly blamed for the accidents and that the number in Worcester County is normal for a summer resort.
“As far as all coastal beach towns go, they are all saturated with personal watercraft rentals,” he said. “It’s a very established industry right now.”
But Worcester County still ranks high for personal watercraft accidents when compared to other resorts on the country’s coasts and lakes. Of the 800 counties that reported personal watercraft accidents each year since 1995, Worcester County ranked between 10th and 27th.
In 2000, the only other resort areas on the East Coast with more personal watercraft accidents were Ocean County, N.J., and some counties in Florida.
Police and rental operators in Ocean City, Md., also say personal watercraft owners have to share some of the blame. Hofmann said sometimes people with no boating experience buy Jet Skis and take them to Ocean City, but have no idea what they are doing.
Since 1995, about 80 percent of personal watercraft accidents in Ocean City involved rented boats. In 2000, only 50 percent were rented.
Hofmann said she is beginning to see signs of success. For the first time in a number of years, there were no fatalities from personal watercraft last summer, she said. But she acknowledges there is room for improvement.
“Personal watercraft are still higher in regard to the accident ratio overall,” she said. “The best thing we can do is focus on bringing that down and educating, educating, educating.”