Personal watercraft makers agree to cap boats' speed

65 mph limit will improve boater safety, cut costs

November 26, 1999|By NEWSDAY

In an informal agreement reached after almost a year of negotiations, the nation's manufacturers of personal watercraft have agreed to cap the speed of their controversial but highly popular products at 65 mph.

The craft continue to be involved in a disproportionate number of accidents, and the Coast Guard has pressed since January for an industrywide speed limit on all new models. The agency hinted it might hold up regulatory approval of some model designs if the industry did not agree.

The manufacturers have several motivations for agreeing to the pact. They include burnishing an industry image tarred by the accident rate -- even if most authorities agree that rider error causes most of the problems -- and avoiding the costly investments required to make faster machines. For every additional mile per hour, a company executive said, it costs $1 million in research and development.

"We felt it was time to stop the speed war and start focusing on education," said Jan Hall, manager of government relations and public affairs for industry leader Bombardier Recreational Products, which makes the Sea-Doo watercraft.

Nationally, personal watercraft make up 10 percent of registered boats, but are involved in 40 percent of accidents, according to Capt. Michael Holmes, chief of boating safety for the Coast Guard. "We just want to reel that in a little bit and make sure it doesn't get any worse," he said.

Like Holmes, other safety officials emphasize that rider mistakes, rather than raw speed, probably play the largest role in accidents. As proof, they point to decreasing number of accidents in states that mandate operator education.

Some in the industry have tried to address the operator issue with technology. Bombardier introduced a device this fall that caps the speed of a machine at 35 mph. When riders become seasoned at the controls, they can remove the device and go faster.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Brian Kempf, the top boating-safety official in New York state, of the 65 mph cap. "Frankly, 65 is still pretty fast. Will it make an impact on the overall trend? I'm not sure."

The speed cap, for the 2001 model year, would affect only stock production models that typical consumers buy. Racing watercraft, equipped with speed-enhancing devices, would be exempt. Models for 1999 and 2000 that in some tests have exceeded the cap also are not affected.

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