JET SKIS, those high-powered personal watercraft that have become so popular, look like incredible fun. But they're not toys, as the events of the past summer proved.
Four Marylanders died this year in jet ski mishaps. The youngest was a 13-year-old Severna Park girl who fell off a jet ski and was run over by a second one. Thirty-two other people were injured in a total of 89 accidents. With speeds averaging 50 mph, high maneuverability, a propulsion system that requires operators to apply power in order to steer and a reasonable price tag, jet skis attract daredevils and novices. Even normally conservative folks tend to throw caution to the wind once they get on a jet ski. As the number of these devices proliferates on Maryland waterways -- the Department of Natural Resources says they are growing by 1,000 to 2,000 a year -- so will the number of disasters unless something is done to make sure jet ski operators know what they're doing and abide by some basic safety measures.
As it is, jet skiers are the worst scofflaws on the water. Jet skis account for only 5 percent of the state's watercraft, but their operators received 22 percent of DNR citations this year. The number of jet ski citations has doubled (to 3,129) in just three years.
The DNR has proposed a series of common-sense jet-ski rules that state lawmakers and regulatory committees should wholeheartedly endorse before another summer rolls around. The two most important: requiring all drivers -- including jet ski renters -- to hold a certificate showing they have passed a written test on operating regulations, and raising the age limit for drivers from 14 to 16 over the next two years.
Fourteen-year-olds are too young and inexperienced to be driving the highways at 50 mph; they are also too young and inexperienced to be racing at 50 mph on waterways jammed with sailboats, windsurfers, motorboats and countless other watercraft. The value of the test is obvious. One, it reinforces that jet skis are not toys. Two, it means no driver who gets cited for zipping too close to other boats or not wearing a life jacket can say he didn't know the rules.
These new regulations cannot be dismissed as unnecessary and intrusive government intervention. They are sorely needed to keep Maryland waterways safe.