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Guided Rafting Accident Statistics

Posted: 09/04/2007
By: David Brown

Updated release:  9/4/2007
Original release: 9/05/2006

Facts about Whitewater Rafting Safety Issues

A CNN story on whitewater rafting deaths published in September 2006, which can still be found on the Web, omits the fact that most of the fatalities cited by the article did not occur on commercial raft trips, said David Brown, Executive Director of America Outdoors (AO).  America Outdoors is a national association of outfitters, which includes many whitewater rafting companies.  The story cites 50 whitewater deaths and infers that they were on commercial rafting trips due to lax state regulation.  Brown says his data shows 10 fatalities on guided, commercial raft trips in 2006.  None of the deaths on commercial trips were the result of a customer not wearing a life jacket.  Of the eight rafting deaths cited in Oregon by CNN, none were on a commercially guided trip.


Most of the data cited in the story came from statistics complied by American Whitewater (AW) and the CNN report did not separate deaths on private, self-guided kayak, canoe and raft trips from commercial rafting accidents.  Charlie Walbridge compiles the data for American Whitewater.  In a response to CNN, Mr. Walbridge said, “Although it (the CNN story) focused on the safety of commercial rafting, it used numbers that are made up primarily of private, unguided boaters who died on the river.”  By “river” Mr. Walbridge means whitewater rivers in general.


Requiring customers to wear life jackets on whitewater rafting trips is the industry standard.  The article mentions only state regulations, but many outfitters are also regulated by federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the USDA Forest Service and the National Park Service.  Federal, state or local authorities regulate commercial rafting companies in almost all locations and require customers to wear life jackets among their regulations. 


There is a great deal of misinformation floating around the internet due to the complex nature of the data on whitewater safety.  The majority of fatalities each year are not on guided trips, but on self-guided trips.  Unfortunately, for some the assumption is that any or most whitewater accidents are commercial accidents when just the opposite is true. 

America Outdoors keeps a count of fatalities on guided raft trips.  Nationwide, the number of fatalities has ranged between six and ten per year for an estimated 2.5 million user days on guided trips.  The incidence of commercially guided rafting fatalities is estimated to range from one death per 250,000 person visits to one death per 400,000 person visit days.  A person visit is an individual raft trip for some portion of one day.  The relative risk varies with the level of whitewater, weather, the health of the participant, the experience of the guide and other factors. 

America Outdoors believes that everyone engaged in whitewater sports whether or not on a commercial trip or a self-guided trip should wear a life jacket.  Inexperienced rafters should not attempt whitewater rafting or other whitewater sports without proper instruction and equipment. If they are inexperienced and want to participate, they should do so with a reputable, professional outfitter.  Rafters must be capable of actively participating in their own recovery in the event they fallout of a raft and that effort may be vigorous.  It is estimated that approximately 25% to 30% of the fatalities on commercial raft trips each year are related to heart conditions or heart attacks.


Millions of Americans enjoy the thrill and sense of wonder found in whitewater rafting each year.  For more information visit or contact David Brown, America Outdoors, 865-558-3595.

Charles Walbridge

Bruceton Mills, WV

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