American Whitewater Announces Safety Database Upgrade

posted April 1, 2017
by Charlie Walbridge

article photo 4

Why We Report Accidents (And How You Can Help)

After over a year's work American Whitewater has released an upgraded version of their Whitewater Accident Database. It's the largest collection of its kind in the world, with over 1600 fatalities and close calls dating back to 1972. Each report has been checked for accuracy and AW Webmaster Ryan Groth greatly improved the search capacity. You can now locate accidents by a dozen different categories and characteristics. Here's how this project came about, how it evolved, why American Whitewater reports accidents and how you can help us keep this project going in the coming years.

It started over 40 years ago, in 1975. Charlie Walbridge was on the water when drowning occurred at a Class II slalom race. The paddler was well equipped and experienced and no one could explain exactly how it happened. He was upset, and curious enough to start asking questions. He knew many of the paddlers who had tried to make the rescue and talked with them the next day. Later someone told him about a similar accident that happened a few months earlier in Tennessee. His report, published in the 1976 AW Journal,  described the risks of foot entrapment for the first time. The well-known caution not to stand up in fast-moving water, not standard back then, quickly became the usual practice. This illustrates how paddlers learn from accident reports to improve the safety of the sport, which is one of AW's major goals.

After writing this report, he received others. At first he only heard about a handful of accidents each year. The sport was very small then; he knew many of the people involved personally and they trusted him to explain what happened. Later he started studying accidents outside the whitewater paddling community to support AW's work with State and Federal boating regulators. Any incident occurring on fast moving water was of interest since whitewater dynamics were in play. He encouraged paddlers to submit accounts of near misses, serious injuries, and successful rescues. While many of us are too embarrassed or shaken to discuss these events publically, we all benefit tremendously from the accounts of those who do.

In the late 1990's the huge "new school" growth spurt in kayaking happened just as the Internet came of age. Emails, chat rooms, and social media made it easier than ever to share accident reports, to research leads, and to communicate with those involved. The number of reports he received increased. Today we get reports of 30-40 moving water deaths per year with a high of 77 fatalities in 2011. The Accident Database was created by Safety Chair Tim Kelly in 2001 to make this information more accessible to anyone.

There are three good reasons for writing (or sending in) a whitewater accident report:

First, to get the real story out. People will talk about fatalities or near misses, and the rumor mill quickly fills in the gaps. Some people who weren't there make up an unflattering versions of what happened just to get attention. Thanks to the Internet these negative accounts can gain wide circulation  When those involved get the real story out quickly  it puts those negative rumors to rest.

Second, to learn from what happened. Since most paddlers won't encounter a fatal accident during their entire careers these first hand these reports are a unique learning opportunity. Each accident, near miss, or serious injury helps paddlers figure out what works and what doesn't, The reports help us improve equipment, modify skills, and increase awareness of specific hazards. They also help us better understand the risks involved and make better decisions on the water Even the ones with obvious causes, like the no PFD, high water, cold water deaths we see every year, reinforce tAW's safety message.

Lastly, this work supports American Whitewater's access and conservation work with government agencies. Since river running skills are not well known outside the paddling community our sport often seem reckless and irresponsible to ordinary people. Government officials, who are no better informed than the average citizen, can be tempted close off or restrict river access for "public safety" reasons. AW staff and volunteers counter this with a fact-based approach to whitewater safety based on our long history of work in the field. Since strong personal skills and good decision making are the key to safety in paddlesports, we encourage them to think in terms of "education, not regulation,"

Accident reports come from many sources. There are detailed accounts written by paddlers present at the scene of the accident. There are summaries from paddlers discussing an accident in emails or chat rooms. Then there are newspaper articles, good for names and dates, but beyond that their quality varies widely. Some are very well written and quite detailed; others are sketchy or omit important facts. It's really helpful when the person forwarding the article writes a few sentences about what the river is like. Sometimes all we get is an email saying that the writer thinks someone died on a river nearby. Then we then make inquiries to confirm or deny the rumor.

American Whitewater depends on its members to forward the reports that they encounter. Search engines are no match for knowledgeable paddlers with their ears to the ground! Don't worry, we don't mind duplicate submissions, and we're ready to track down rumors and find out what happened.

If you're putting a report together, start with the basics: The date the accident happened, the river and location (section, name of rapid or feature if possible), river level and difficulty, and the name and age of the victim. Then follow up with a straightforward description of what happened. If you weren't there, say what you know. If you're forwarding newspaper articles or chat room posts, cut and paste the text rather than providing link. A link will often stop working without warning. A description of the accident site from the view of an experienced boater is always useful, so don't hesitate to add your observations. You can go to the American Whitewater website safety page, hit the link marked  "report an accident", and fill out a report. Or you can send the material to Charlie Walbridge or message him on Facebook. He can also edit or help prepare a report to help you tell the story.


American Whitewater

Accident Database Statistics: 1975 - 2016

Total Records

1588

 

Fatalities

1262    

79%

Near Misses

 268

17%

Injuries

   58

 3%

     

Fatalities by Country

United States

1192

95%

Canada

   30

 2%

All Other

   40

 3%

     

Fatalities by Boat Type

Kayak

 446

 35%

Canoe

 182

 14%

Raft and IK

 486

 39%

Other

 146

 12%

Commercial

 231

 18%

Private

1031

 82%

     

Fatalities by Cause

Cold Water

326

26%

Flush Drowning

310

25%

High Water

290

23%

No PFD

201

16%

Strainer   

196

16%

Entrapment  

175

14%

One Boat Trip

166

13%

Undercuts/ Sieves

159

13%

Near Drown (Nonfatal)

147

12%

Caught in Dam Hydraulic

116

 9%

Failed Rescue

 88

 7%

Caught by Nat. Hydraulic

 70

 6%

Equipment Trap

 63

 5%

Solo Paddler

 55

 4%

Health Problem

 53

 4%

Head Injury

 52

 4%

Heart Attack

 48

 4%

Foot Entrapment

 45

 4%

Impact/ Trauma

 42

 3%

Spinal Injury (nonfatal)

 26

 2%

Vertical Pin

 13

 1%

     

Fatalities by River Difficulty

Class I-II

128

 16%

Class III

280

 36%

Class IV

200

 26%

Class V

173

 22%

     
 

Fatalities by Decade

1977-1986

  48

    3%

1987-1996

219

 18%

1997-2006

453

 36%

2007-2016

530

 43%

     

Fatalities By Water Level

Low

94

 10%

Medium

370

 40%

High

420

 46%

Flood

33

   4%

     

Fatalities by Age

Under 18

 97

   9%

18-34

413

 39%

35-65

485

 46%

over 65

 69

   6%

     

These numbers do not always add up

for various reasons.

For example: most accidents have multiple causes; in some reports ages, difficulty, or water levels are missing

Fatalities by State

Alabama

 16

 1.3%

Alaska

 26

 2%

Arizona

 21

 1.8%

Arkansas

 13

 1%

California

109

 9%

Colorado

155

13%

Connecticut

   9

 0.7%

Georgia

   7

 0.6%

Hawaii

   1

 0.01%

Idaho

 74

 6%

Illinois

 10

 0.8%

Indiana

 11

 0.9%

Iowa

   3

 0.9%

Kansas

   7

 0.6%

Kentucky

 11

 0.9%

Maine

 14

 1.1%

Maryland

 14

 1.1%

Massachusetts

   7

 0.6%

Michigan

 14

 1.1%

Minnesota

   6

 0.5%

Missouri

   7

 0.6%

Montana

 50

 4%

Nevada

   2

 0.02%

New Hampshire

 14

 1.1%

New Jersey

 16

 1.3%

New Mexico

 10

 0.8%

New York

 52

 4%

North Carolina

 33

 3%

North Dakota

   2

 0.02%

Ohio

 16

 1.3%

Oklahoma

   3

 0.02

Oregon

 60

  5%

Pennsylvania

 66

  6%

Rhode Island

   2

  0.02%

South Carolina

 29

  2%

Tennessee

 36

  3%

Texas

 22

  1.8%

Utah

 29

  2%

Vermont

   6

  0.5%

Virginia

 30

  3%

Washington

 69

  6%

West Virginia

 78

  7%

Wisconsin

 12

  1%

Wyoming

 20

  1.6%

     
 

No Whitewater Fatalities were reported in Delaware, DC, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, & South Dakota

Top 10 States for Fatalities

1.Colorado

155

13%

2. California

109

9%

3. West Virginia

 78

7%

4. Idaho

 74

6%

5. Washington

 69

6%

6. Pennsylvania

 66

6%

7. Oregon

 60

5%

8. Montana

 50

4%

9. Tennessee

 36

3%

10. North Carolina

 33

3%

     

Top 10 Fatal Accident Causes

Cold Water

326

26%

Flush Drowning

310

25%

High Water

290

23%

No PFD

201

16%

Strainer   

196

16%

Entrapment  

175

14%

One Boat Trip

166

13%

Undercuts/ Sieves

159

13%

Caught in Dam Hydraulic

116

 9%

Caught by Natural Hydraulic

 70

 6%


 

American Whitewater

Accident Database Statistics: The Last 10 Years: 2007-2016

Fatalities by Boat Type

Kayak

166

32%

Canoe

65

12%

Raft and IK

208

40%

Other

84

16%

Total

529

 

Commercial

101

19%

Private

428

81%

     

Fatalities by Cause

Left causes in the same order as the 40-year chart so you can recognize changes (very few)

Cold Water

159

30%

Flush Drowning

146

28%

High Water

126

24%

No PFD

97

18%

Strainer   

84

16%

Entrapment   

51

10%

One Boat Trip

64

12%

Near Drown'g (Nonfatal)

62

12%

Undercuts/ Sieves

47

 9%

Dam Hydraulic

48

 9%

Failed Rescue

13

 2%

Caught in Nat. Hydraulic

31

 6%

Equipment Trap

23

 5%

Solo Paddler

18

 3%

Health Problem

26

 5%

Head Injury

16

 3%

Heart Attack

25

 5%

Foot Entrapment

12

 2%

Impact/ Trauma

11

 2%

Spinal Injury (nonfatal)

16

 3%

Vertical Pin

 3

0.5%

     

Fatalities by Difficulty

Class II

35

15%

Class III

51

21%

Class IV

95

40%

Class V

59

24%

     

Fatalities by Ages

Under 18

65

12%

18-34

165

32%

35-65

255

48%

over 65

44

8%

     

 

Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV