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Making Waves: Doctor Group Issues Safety Recommendations for Personal Watercraft Use

WebMD Health News

Feb. 9, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Deaths and injuries from personal watercraft accidents have increased dramatically over the last decade, according to a report in the February issue of Pediatrics. Doctors recommend a minimum operating age of 16 and mandatory use of flotation devices approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Because some communities have limited or banned the use of watercraft known as jet skis, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reviewed several regional and national reports. The data show that, along with increased use of personal watercraft, there has also been a dramatic increase in related deaths and injuries.

Data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System indicate that there was a fourfold increase in related emergency room visits from 1990 to 1995. The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in fatalities from 5 in 1987 to 57 in 1996. In 1997, 83 fatalities were reported by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Many of these incidents involved children and young adults.

According to a 1998 report by the National Transportation Safety Board, 9% of all operators in personal watercraft incidents were less than 16 years of age, and 46% were less than 24 years of age. In a California report, operators less than 18 years of age accounted for 14% of all boating accidents, 18% of all boating injuries, and 5% of all boating fatalities. Personal watercraft were involved in more than 90% of these incidents. These findings led the AAP to develop safety recommendations.

"Personal watercraft are the only recreational boats for which the leading cause of death isn't drowning, and most incidents occur in collisions with other vessels, docks, or tree stumps," says Marilyn Bull, MD, chairwoman of the Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention and professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. "Three studies cite inexperience, inattention, excessive speed, and recklessness as behavioral factors [leading to accidents]." Bull, who reviewed the report for WebMD, says that most fatalities are the result of blunt trauma.

"In this part of the country, we see way too many of these accidents," says David Shatz, MD, a trauma surgeon and associate professor of surgery at the University of Miami School of Medicine. "Lacerations account for most of the injuries, followed by fractures and head trauma. Given the high speed of personal watercraft, it's amazing that protective gear isn't required."

According to Bull, it's not yet clear which helmet provides the best protection. "Although some professional riders wear helmets, more research is needed to determine which type of helmet provides the best protection," she says. "But the Personal Watercraft Industry Association currently recommends a wet suit, gloves, protective eyewear, and footwear."

The AAP urges pediatricians and legislators to support its recommendations.

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