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This briefing paper explains the law governing the use of personal watercraft (PWC), which is the technical description of what are often colloquially known as jet skis. “Jet ski” is the trade name for one particular brand of motorised personal watercraft manufactured by Kawasaki. 

Issues with PWC

There have been periodic reports of accidents involving PWC in British coastal waters in recent years. Most accidents are due to collisions with other PWC or watercraft, crashing into jetties, piers or rocks or failing to avoid more vulnerable water users. In some cases there have been fatalities, as well as reports of lower-level nuisance, including antisocial behaviour and the piloting of PWC close to other water users.

Legal definition of PWC

PWC are not covered by the same legislation as ships or small boats taking passengers, as there is a legal precedent for saying that PWC are not defined as ships. They are therefore not subject to the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGS). That definition was challenged by the outcome of a 2005 court case which prompted a change in guidance and a consultation on changes to legislation in 2009. That consultation considered bringing PWC within the definition of “ship” in Merchant Shipping legislation pertaining to safety, conduct endangering ships, structures or individuals and drugs and alcohol offences.

However, substantive legislative changes did not follow. The view of successive UK governments has remained that it is the responsibility of local authorities and harbour authorities to regulate personal watercraft using local bye-law powers to, for instance, restrict the times and places that PWC can be used.

Calls for national level regulations

More recently, some MPs, industry groups and journalists have continued to raise the issues of PWC and their perceived danger and nuisance to other members of the public. Some have called for national-level regulations on licences and age restrictions for PWC, and greater enforcement powers. Since 2019 the Government has indicated that a consultation on new regulations is forthcoming.

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