A consultation has been launched following proposals to update personal watercraft laws. The aim is to change the legislation so that reckless or dangerous activity on the water can be penalised.

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The laws for recreational watercraft

There have long been concerns that the laws relating to recreational and personal watercraft are inadequate. Currently, local and harbour authorities have the power to introduce byelaws or harbour directions to ensure the safety of all users. This includes speed limits, age restrictions, launch permits, zoning and separation of users. Contraventions of these byelaws and harbour directions can be prosecuted by the local and harbour authorities. Prosecution is also possible for more serious offences, such as under manslaughter legislation.

However, a case that concluded in 2005 revealed that the law may require development. The case involved the rider of a pleasure watercraft (PWC) who collided with a stationary user, causing serious injuries. A prosecution was brought under section 58 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Although the rider of the PWC was found guilty, the Court of Appeal overturned the conviction on the basis that PWCs are not “used in navigation”. It could therefore be interpreted that PWC operators and users fall outside the scope of section 58.

A new consultation

The authorities become concerned that if PWC operators and users fall outside the scope of section 58, then it might prove impossible to enforce reckless or dangerous activity on the water in certain circumstances. Yet incidents do occur, with the UK seeing 11 fatalities involving PWCs in the past 10 years. A consultation initially took place after the 2005 Court of Appeal ruling, but it was decided that the draft legislation required further development. The position has been reviewed, resulting in a new consultation.

A committee has been considering how best to update the law. Ultimately, the aim is to make the provisions of the 1995 Act relating to conduct, endangering ships, structures or individuals and safety applicable to recreational and PWCs. Four proposals were considered:

  • Do nothing
  • Introduce primary legislation
  • Legislate under the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003
  • Amend the Merchant Shipping Act definition of “ship”

Legislate under the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003

The third proposal – legislate under the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 – is currently the preferred option. This would extend the relevant provisions of the 1995 Act to cover recreational and PWCs. This would ensure all PWCs and recreational craft “not used in navigation” would be in scope.

In particular, the following aspects of the 1995 Act would be amended to widen applicability:

  • Offences – the offence of conduct endangering ships, structures, or individuals would apply regardless of whether the watercraft was seagoing or the master was employed.
  • Unsafe operation – watercraft owners would be made liable for unsafe operation.
  • Detention – enforcement authorities would be given the power to detain unsafe watercraft.
  • Health and safety – future regulations could be made specifically for watercraft if required.
  • Registration – voluntary registration of watercraft on the UK Ship Register to be facilitated.

This proposal would also bring recreational and PWCs within the scope of the Harbours Act 1964. This Act uses the same definition of ‘ship’ as the 1995 Act. However, the proposals do not include any change to, or variation of, any existing byelaws or harbour direction making powers.

What happens next?

Stakeholders are being asked to respond to the consultation, which includes 11 questions, such as: is the new legislation necessary? And, should the power of detention be available? The consultation closes on 1 November 2021. The results will then be reviewed and recommendations made to the government. It therefore remains to be seen if the legislation will be amended. If it is, then PWC users and operators must familiarise themselves with the new laws. Otherwise, any breaches could result in criminal prosecution and sanctions.

Personal watercraft laws – England and Wales

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