The death of a Jet-Skier Saturday was the latest in a string of boating deaths in Idaho this year, and the third recorded fatality in the state involving a personal watercraft.
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department still is seeking witnesses to the accident that killed 41-year-old Joseph Harper of the Spokane Valley.
Harper was boating in Beauty Bay with several family members and friends in celebration of his wife’s birthday, according to the sheriff’s department.
Harper and friend Major Bambino, 36, were on personal watercraft and decided to swap. While riding in the low-angle sunlight, the two collided.
Although the cause of death is not yet official, it appears Harper died almost immediately from internal injuries, Sgt. Dan Soumas said.
Harper’s death marks the 15th boating death in the state this summer, and the first for Kootenai County since 1995, according to the state Parks and Recreation Department.
“We’re up considerably this year over previous years, as far as total fatalities,” said Pat Beale, a state training coordinator with the boating program. “We’re seeing a clear relationship between alcohol and fatalities.”
This weekend’s accident is an exception, however. Bambino, who ran into Harper at an angle, had no alcohol in his system, Soumas said.
People riding personal watercraft seem to be having more than their fair share of the accidents.
While only 8 percent of the registered boats in Idaho are personal watercraft, in 1996 they accounted for about 23 percent of the accidents. In 1994, 29 percent of the accidents involved the small, quick-turning craft.
The first fatality involving a JetSki was in 1980, Beale said, when a drunken man took his Jet-Ski out on the St. Joe River at night.
The second fatality was in 1995, when a 16-year-old girl collided with another watercraft in Ada County.
Soumas said his deputies have recorded several accidents in Kootenai County. Two weeks ago a 17-year-old girl on a personal watercraft was seriously injured, and required surgery, after landing wrong when she jumped a wave.
Two teenagers ran into each other at Twin Lakes this summer, but suffered only minor injuries because they were going at slow speeds.
“The only thing that makes it (Harper’s accident) different than some of the other ones we’ve had, is they may have been going a little faster,” Soumas said.
Jet-Skis and other personal watercraft can go 50 mph. Beale and Soumas say that operators sometimes get a kind of tunnel vision and can become oblivious to what’s happening around them.
“They don’t see everything that’s happening, because it’s happening so fast,” Beale said.
They also tend to ride in groups and make waves for each other to jump.
That’s one theory why they have a higher accident rate than other boats.
Another guess is that people who have them tend to ride them more often than people who have conventional boats.
“Another theory is personal watercraft is bringing a whole new group of first-time boaters, and they’re being ridden by people who are younger and more interested in the experience (it) provides them,” Beale said. “It’s faster, more exciting.”
Beale and other state officials are urging boaters to be careful this Labor Day weekend.
In a press release Monday, the parks department urged boaters to wear a life jacket, boat without booze and slow down for others.
“Labor Day weekend may be the last time for some people to get on the water, but by no means is it a time to throw caution to the wind,” said Anne Van Buren, a state boating educator.
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