Whitewater is Safer Than You Think

Posted: 02/05/2006
By: Laura Whitman

Laura Wittmann was the assistant to Jason Robertson, American Whitewater’s Access Director, from 1998 to 2000.

Although whitewater boating fatalities have been getting increased attention in the last couple of years, the actual fatality rate for whitewater kayaking (2.9 in 1998 per 100,000 participants) is not as high as a few highly-publicized deaths would lead you to believe. In comparison with other sports, it is safer than scuba diving (3.5) and mountaineering (3.2). In fact, driving a car is arguably more dangerous than whitewater boating, as the fatality rate for driving a passenger vehicle is 15.2.

 A fatality rate for whitewater boating can be calculated using several methods. Based on our research and the research done by Dr. Jennifer Plyler we were able to calculate fatality rates for both user days and for number of participants. American Whitewater estimated that the number of whitewater kayaking participants in the is 700,000. In 1998 there were 20 whitewater kayak deaths in the , from which we calculate a 2.9 fatality rate for whitewater kayakers. 

 A second study covered thirty managed whitewater rivers in the containing rapids of all degrees of difficulty. We calculated an overall whitewater fatality rate of 0.87 deaths per 100,000 user days over a five-year period (1994-1998) for all whitewater boaters, including private and commercial boaters as well as kayakers, canoers, and rafters. In the worst year of our study period, 1998, the fatality rate for all whitewater boaters in the was 1.15 fatalities per 100,000 user days. Finally, the fatality rate for all human-powered boaters (flatwater, whitewater, and ocean) for 1995 (the latest available data) was 0.4 per 100,000 participantsm.

 Chart 1: Kayaking, Canoeing, Rafting Fatality Rates (per 100,000 Participants)

K1 whitewater participants (1998)


Human-powered boaters (flatwater, ocean, whitewater) (1995)


 Chart 2: Kayaking, Canoeing, Rafting Fatality Rates (per 100,000 User Days)

All whitewater craft;1998 (based on managed-river study; 1998)


All whitewater craft from 1994-1998 (based on managed-river study)


User-day Study: In March 2000, American Whitewater completed a study on whitewater safety and usage.  Our study was designed to determine a national whitewater fatality rate, based on measured levels of use on managed rivers.  We found that there were 0.86 fatalities per 100,000 whitewater boaters (both private and commercial) over a five-year period between 1994-1998.  In 1998, the whitewater fatality rate for these same rivers was 1.15. This number represents a maximum or “worst case” fatality rate since the total use private numbers are almost certainly underreported.

Method: We contacted officials for 35 managed rivers and asked for visitor use figures for private and commercial boaters, as well as whitewater boating fatality data for the last five years.  Of the 35 river managers contacted, 30 supplied data fitting our study requirements. 

Rivers Studied

American, South Fork; Arkansas; Chattooga; Colorado (Cataract); Colorado (Grand Canyon); Colorado (Westwater)' Deschutes; Dolores; Green (Desolation and Gray)
Green (Dinosaur)
; Illinois; Kennebec; Nantahala; Ocoee; Owyhee; Rio Chama; Rio Grande (Big Bend); Rio Grande (Taos Box); Rogue; Salmon, Main; Salmon, Middle; Selway; Skagit; Snake (Alpine Canyon); Snake (Hells Canyon); Tuolumne; Yampa (Dinosaur);Yough, Lower

Of the five that supplied data not meeting our criteria, the New and Gauley are good examples.  Here managers did not record private boater numbers for the last five years, so their data could not be included in the overall fatality rate.  

These use numbers represent the numbers of boaters paddling the river per day, whether an individual boater ran a particular river once or several times. Since the commercial rafting companies were required to turn in use numbers each season, their totals are likely more accurate than private user counts, which we believe are likely to be under-reported. Each agency had its own method of counting private boaters and these methods varied substantially from river to river. Among the possible variables were the length of the counting season, how rented boats were counted, and whether private boaters complied with pre-registration requirements.

 Results: The total number of commercial boaters in a five-year period was 5,732,683; the total number of private boaters was 1,687,880.  There were a total of 7,420,563 whitewater boaters on these 30 rivers between 1994 and 1998. During this five-year period there were 64 whitewater boating deaths, including 26 commercial boater deaths and 38 private boater deaths. Eleven non-boating deaths (as a result of falling off cliffs or jumping off bridges) were also reported, but omitted from our study.

We calculated a fatality rate of 0.86 whitewater fatalities per 100,000 boaters, or 2.25 private boater deaths per 100,000 and 0.45 commercial boater deaths per 100,000. The river with the greatest number of deaths was the Arkansas in Colorado, with 17 deaths in five years.

Comments: It is likely that the overall whitewater fatality rate would have been even lower if more accurate number of private boaters had been available. Although our calculations are correct based on the data we collected, the number of private boaters counted is almost certainly low. The reason for this under-representation is that some commercial, self-guided river users were often counted as private visitors. There is also anecdotal evidence that many private boaters failed to complete voluntary pre-registration requirements at some locations.  Additionally, due to concerns about victim privacy we could not ascertain the manner of death for each recorded fatality and may have inadvertently included some non-boater drownings.

American Whitewater strongly encourages river visitors
to wear their life jackets
and to boat safely.

We also ask for accident witnesses to submit incident reports to our Safety Committee regarding the details of the event so that we may learn from them and hopefully avoid similar accidents in the future. 

Chart 3: 1998 Fatality Ratesb in the



Recreational Boating f (per 100,000 registered vessels)


Scuba Diving (1996)g


Climbing: rock, snow, icekk (1997)


K1 White water boatingh






Drowning (in public places)


Whitewater boating (94-98 user days)h


Hunting e (1997)


Skiing and Snowboarding g


Firearms (accidental)




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

b Fatality rate 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.” (October 1999). http:/www.skinet.com/instruction/00/983.html.

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

i United States Fire Administration (1998). “Fire Fighter Fatalities in the , 1998.” National Fire Data Center.

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 Coast Guard.” Unpublished Data. American Whitewater Safety Assistant.

mSporting Good Manufacturers Association (SGMA) and the USDA Forest Service. Cordell, Ken, McDonald, Barbara & Briggs, J. Alden. (1995). Emerging Markets for Outdoor Recreation in the based on the National Survey on Recreation and Environment. www.outdoorlink.com/infosource.nsre.

 Chart 4: Total Number of Deaths in the (1998)



Passenger Automobile


Falls at home




Fires at home


Drowning (in public places)


Swimming g


Recreational Boating f  (registered vessels)




Firearms (accidental)


Hunters e


Whitewater boatingl (1998)

62 total:
20 kayak, 16 canoe, 6 raft, 20 other;
4 commercial, 58 private

Lightning (1997)


Climbing: rock, snow, ice (1997)k


Skiing and Snowboarding

26 total:
22 skiers & 4 snowboarders

Hang Gliding





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