Risk, Safety, and Personal Responsibility

“Risk is essential. There is no growth or inspiration in staying within what is safe and comfortable.”

Alex Noble

“…an emphasis on self-sufficiency, individualism and personal achievement - preferably under adverse circumstances - admiration of risk taking, admiration for skilled performance, especially in competitive situations, and high regard for freedom from both authority and tradition.”

Sociologist David Klein

Outdoor and wilderness recreation has expanded dramatically in the U.S. during the past two decades. Today 77% of Americans view outdoor recreation as an important part of their lives. All outdoor activities, and indeed most elements of daily life, contain some potential for injury. Some outdoor enthusiasts will seek the additional physical and mental challenges found in risk sports. These are skill-based, high-energy activities that contain unavoidably dangerous elements and require special training for prior to participating. Whitewater paddling and activities like skiing, rock climbing and mountain biking are considered risk sports.

Whitewater enthusiasts are often stereotyped as mindless thrill-seekers with a death wish. The reality is quite different. Paddlers represent a true cross-section of American society and include many highly educated professionals. They know the limits of their skills, and by choosing what rapids they run, they control the intensity of their experience. It is a life-long sport that nurtures a love for wild places and an appetite for low-impact, human powered travel. Extreme paddlers are especially calculating when exposing themselves to danger. Today 28% of all Americans currently participate in – or intend to participate in – this type of activity.

Whitewater paddlers, like other risk sport enthusiasts, approach their activity with a focus and intensity not often found in traditional outdoor recreation. They're aware of the dangers and take concrete steps to avoid them. They purchase highly specialized equipment and work hard to develop the skills they need. They condition themselves mentally and physically and learn first aid and rescue skills before setting out. They have a strong sense of personal responsibility and a full understanding of the consequences of their actions. Drug and alcohol abuse is quite rare. Because of their expertise and involvement the actual risks they face are not much more than those encountered by inexperienced people in traditional outdoor recreation.

The risks of any active outdoor sport can be managed, but never eliminated. Dealing intelligently with danger is at the heart of the experience, and outdoor education programs are popular precisely because of this challenge. It's not just about thrills. Learning paddling skills and executing them under pressure helps people develop coolness and courage. This in turn helps a person become more confident and self-reliant. In addition, teaching anyone, especially young people, to deal intelligently with danger helps develop good judgment. This has broad positive implications beyond the river.

Politicians, land managers, and field personnel may be uncomfortable with risk sports as opposed to more traditional forms of recreation. They sometimes view whitewater paddlers and cutting edge river runners in particular, as an irresponsible fringe element. They seldom appreciate the technical skills that underlie the sport, or recognize that large numbers of people participate in it without problems. They worry about accidents and their aftermath. Dealing with a fatality is emotionally draining. It's often followed by a mind-numbing quantity of paperwork and tough questions from superiors. At worst, career-ending publicity or litigation follows. Their antipathy is shared by the general public because the average person is not particularly active or adventurous. Neither group distinguishes between well-trained sportsmen and casual “spur of the moment” participants.

Some problems arise for paddlers because our sport's most basic philosophy contrasts so strongly to that of the public at large. We live in a risk-averse society where people blame anyone but themselves when something goes wrong. After a murder newspaper articles blame the gun, rather than the shooter. People spill coffee in their laps at a drive-through and blame the coffee-seller. Legal judgments come down in favor of those injured by a tool or product even if the injured person misused it. So it's not surprising that here, unlike in Canada or Western Europe, some government officials feel that it's their job to protect us from ourselves.

American Whitewater often encounters these challenges in its conservation and access work. Safety and liability concerns are often given as the reason to block access to whitewater rivers. Our goal is to educate politicians, land managers, and the general public about safe and responsible whitewater paddling.

What are the actual dangers of whitewater?

Although certain risks, particularly those connected with automobile travel, are widely known, many people become especially disturbed about death on the river. But while any fatality is tragic and upsetting, numbers give a more accurate overall picture. As more people are exposed to a given risk, whether we're talking about driving a car, playing football, skateboarding, rock climbing or whitewater paddling, more will be injured or killed. It's notable that the death rate among American troops during the first Gulf War was not much higher than what the Army experiences during normal peacetime operations. There are inherent risks in any kind of hard, physical outdoor work.

American Whitewater calculated the fatality rate for whitewater boating in two separate studies. Using available government and industry data for participation in whitewater sport, Dr. Jennifer Plyler estimated the number of whitewater kayaking participants in the United States at 700,000. Then, after studying both American Whitewater and U.S. Coast Guard accident data, she identified 20 whitewater kayak deaths in the United States in 1998. From this she calculated a fatality rate of 2.9 per 100,000 for whitewater kayaking.

In a second study, AW researcher Laura Whitman contacted the managers of 30 whitewater rivers in the U.S. These stretches contain rapids of all degrees of difficulty. She found a total of 7,420,563 whitewater boaters traveled these rivers between 1994 and 1998, and that there were 64 whitewater boating deaths during this time (26 commercial and 38 private). Eleven non-boating deaths were also reported but omitted from our study. From this, she calculated an overall whitewater fatality rate of 0.87 deaths per 100,000 user days for all whitewater boaters, including private and commercial boaters as well as kayakers, canoeists, and rafters. This breaks down as follows: 2.25 per 100,000 for private boaters and 0.45 per 100,000 for commercial boaters. In the worst year of the study period, 1998, the fatality rate for all whitewater boaters in the United States was 1.15 fatalities per 100,000 user days.

It's likely that the overall whitewater fatality rate would have been lower if more accurate count of private boaters had been available. We believe that number is almost certainly low. Many private boaters fail to complete voluntary pre-registration requirements at some locations. We also believe that some commercial, self-guided river users were counted as private visitors. Additionally, we could not always ascertain the manner of death for each recorded fatality because of concerns about victim privacy. Thus, we may have inadvertently included some drownings that did not involve paddlers. Commercial rafting companies are required to keep accurate records of their numbers each season, so their totals are probably more accurate.

Using widely available public data we can compare whitewater paddling against a number of familiar activities. Its accident rate ranked well below those reported for recreational swimming (2.6) and for bicycling (1.6) Whitewater kayaking had a higher fatality rate, 2.9 per 100,000. This ranks well below well below the figures of 3.5 for scuba diving and 3.2 for rock climbing. Whitewater paddling thus falls near the bottom of the risk sport family, and kayaking sits comfortably in the middle. Looking at the big picture, 62 fatalities among whitewater paddlers comprises about .026% of the total drownings in this country (2400) each year. This, in turn, is dwarfed by the more than 41,000 people who die in automobiles each year.

Fatality Rates b in the United States

Scuba Diving (1996) g 3.5
Climbing: rock, snow, ice kk (1997) 3.2
Kayaking Whitewater 2.9
Recreational Swimming g 2.6
Bicycling g 1.6
Drowning (in public places) 0.9
Whitewater boating
(based on 94-98 user days)h
Hunting e (1997) 0.7
Skiing and Snowboarding g 0.4

Total Number of Deaths in the United States

Passenger Automobile travel 41,200
Falls at home 10,700
Pedestrians 5,900
Fires at home 3,300
Drowning (in public places) 2,400
Swimming g 1,500
Recreational Boating f
(registered vessels)
Bicyclingg 700
Firearms (accidental) 200
Hunters e 99
Whitewater Boatingh (1998)
other (i.e.: swimmers & tubers)
Lightning (1997) 42
Climbing: rock, snow, ice (1997)k 31
Ski / Snowboarding g 26
Hang Gliding 9

Unless otherwise noted, statistics are from the National Safety Council (1999). Injury Facts.

Fatality rates are per 100,000 participants (except Lightning, Falls, Fires, Drowning, Motor Vehicles, Pedestrians, and Firearms, which are per 100,000 population).

g National Sporting Goods Association (1998, 1997). Sports Participation. As reported in “NSAA Report on Skiing/Snowboarding Safety.” (Oct. 1999). http:/www.skinet.com/instruction/00/983.html.

h Wittmann, Laura (Sept. / Oct. 2000). “Whitewater Boating Fatality Study.” American Whitewater Journal.

k The American Alpine Club (1998). 1998 Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

kk Williamson, Jedd. Editor of Accidents in North American Mountaineering. Phone Conversation July 12, 2000.

l Plyler, Jennifer. (2000). “Comparison of American Whitewater Safety Statistics to the U.S. Coast Guard.” Unpublished Data. American Whitewater Safety Assistant.

But if whitewater sport is so safe, why do we hear so much about paddling fatalities nowadays?

Participation has grown tremendously. The U.S. Forest Service, in the 1982-83 Nationwide Recreation Study, estimated that about 15 million people participated in canoeing and kayaking. The 2000 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment estimated that there are 19.7 million canoeists and 6.6 million kayakers nationwide for a total of 26.6 million participants. This is a 75%growth rate, much of which occurred during the last decade. Most recently, the Outdoor Industry Association released a report showing that the number of first time paddlers had grown significantly. There were 37% more new kayakers and 33% more new canoeists taking up the sport between 2000 and 2001. Whitewater kayaking has often been singled out as a major growth area in the outdoor retailing business during the past decade.

The business side of whitewater has grown explosively. Kayaking, which wasn't even listed as a separate activity in the 1983 Forest Service Recreation study, is now growing at a much faster rate than canoeing. In 1985 Perception Kayaks dominated the market, producing five whitewater boat designs. There are now five major U.S. whitewater kayak companies: Perception, Dagger, Necky, Wave Sport, and Liquid Logic, offering a total of 63 different designs! There are also several successful imported lines, each offering 6-12 different design choices. There has been tremendous innovation in equipment and technique during last two decades. Features like keyhole cockpits and bulkhead footbraces make modern boats much safer to paddle than their predecessors. Instruction, especially in schools and colleges, has grown too, making the sport more accessible to the public. Improved training allows talented athletes to progress more rapidly. The sport is much safer today than it ever was.

As gear and skills improved, the next generation of paddlers used shorter, more nimble boats and safer outfitting to run harder whitewater. The leaders are an elite corps of full-time professional kayakers, sponsored by manufacturers, who travel the world and paddle difficult whitewater 200-300 days a year. They and their high-level, non-professional colleagues run more difficult drops in a month than the average paddler sees in a lifetime. They've opened up many very difficult runs during the past decade and their skill and knowledge has worked its way into the mainstream.

Today's river activities reflect these changes. “Old-school” cutting-edge expert runs like the Gauley and Upper Youghiogheny are now crowded with hundreds of mainstream paddlers, and more difficult rivers like the Green and Tallulah, once considered unrunnable, are now quite popular. For example, in the late '70's a handful of paddlers first ran the Class V+ “Bottom Moose” in upstate New York, portaging many of the big drops. In the '80's this stretch became the site of one of AW's first successful FERC interventions. Safety was an issue when a paddler died there during this process, and a number of paddlers wondered why we were putting so much energy into a difficult stretch that few people would ever use. Today hundreds of paddlers line up to run these very same rapids at a popular river festival each fall. The new generation built on the experience of those who went before it, innovated, and advanced. By standing up for our values - free access and personal responsibility - many years ago we gave today's paddlers a valuable recreational resource.

In the end, safety still depends on individual judgment. Casual cruisers and top experts must both match their skill to the demands of the river. American Whitewater believes that informed, prepared paddlers should have the freedom to make these decisions and take the responsibility for what happens as a result. We don't believe that government, no matter how well-meaning, should have a role in this decision-making. We have seen the sport evolve continually over the past 50 years, during which time rapids which were once considered impossible have become popular. Based on this experience, we oppose any efforts to set a “cap” on the limits of what is possible. There's no such thing as a risk-free environment, especially in the outdoors. Any efforts to create one will restrict responsible sportsmen without protecting the less informed.