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George  Sayour

Whitewater Rafting Death Statistics

By June 25, 2011

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A lot of attention has been given this summer to whitewater rafting safety due to the recent deaths on the Ocoee River.† While even one death on a river in a year is a tragedy, it rarely†gains widespread attention.† However, when two people drown it tends to draw scrutiny, and rightfully so.

People, and parents specifically, are beginning to ask if it is safe for their kids to go rafting.† And while I pointed out in my last post that decision needs to be made on an individual basis, statistically speaking it is very safe.† So what do I mean by safe?

In 2006 CNN wrote an article stating that there were†25 whitewater rafting deaths in 12 states in the first 8 months of that year.† The inference in the article was that these deaths were a result of lax regulation.† That doesn't sound so safe, does it?

Well, what CNN failed to mention was that the majority of those deaths were not on commercial raft trips, you know, the ones that you all are asking about.† Meaning, that the majority of the whitewater rafting deaths occurred among individuals with their own rafts.† American whitewater points out that when the data for commercial rafting trips is looked at on its own, the number of deaths goes down to 10 for the whole year.

So, 10 people died in 2006 in the U.S. while on commercially guided rafting trips.† The next question that needs to be asked is 10 out of what?††† Well, American Whitewater reports that on average, there†are †6-10 whitewater rafting deaths for each 2.5 million user days on guided rafting trips.† That is, there is 1 death for every 250,000 to 400,000 "person visits" of whitewater rafting.† Furthermore, about 30% of those deaths come from heart conditions or heart attacks.

Of course, there are other factors to consider such as the classification of the river, the time of year, and the maturity of the rafter.† So, in the end, it is up to†the individual to decide.†† But as I mentioned earlier in the week, very rarely do people question if it is safe for their kids to ride carnival rides, yet in 2004 alone there were 5 deaths on amusement park rides.† Compare that with the 10 deaths on commercial whitewater rafting trips in 2006 and it puts things into perspective a little bit.

There is danger in everything, where you draw the line is an individual decision.

Comments

July 10, 2011 at 11:53 pm
(1) Lisa says:

The problem with all of this is so many of the commercial rafting companies advertise whitewater rafting as a family activity and take families with children and inexperienced rafters out on the water when they shouldn’t. Its an industry that is out to make money for the area’s tourism and is run by a bunch of young adults that most likely have not been properly trained. There needs to be better regulation of this activity. In one week’s time the summer of 2008, there were mutliple deaths on the Arkansas river while I was in Colorado. My family was involved in a rafting accident, but were very lucky. I have never been to Disney World where in one week there were multiple deaths. At least at Disney World, if you are not big enough to ride the roller coaster, they won’t let you on.

July 12, 2011 at 11:21 pm
(2) Steve says:

Speaking as an experienced boater, and a former rafting guide, it is doubtful more legislation would “fix” a perceived problem. Many people flock to raft high waters for the thrill. No rafting company or guide wants to be responsible for a death — and the raft guide is at much risk as the other people in the raft. Nor is the industry run by young adults who probably are not properly trained.

The simple fact is that high water has higher risks — training has little to do with that. No matter how trained one is, one can fight the water.

The only probable fault is that the industry could do a better job of telling participants they might die. After that, it becomes the participants’ choice.

A large number of those who die are overweight. Raft personnel are not trained medical doctors, and can not be expected to determine whether potential clients will suffer a heart attack. Again, that is up to the individual participants to understand the stresses and know the medical risks. Here again, the only problem might be that clients are not told they might die –but my experience is that most people are not willing to believe that information.

July 13, 2011 at 12:03 pm
(3) paddling says:

Lisa and Steve,

Thank you both for your comments. I tend to lean toward Steve on this one.

Most of the deaths are due to Heart Attacks of older or overweight individuals.

As for the others, it is very difficult to pin the deaths of individuals on lack of training or the fault of the guide.

Rivers are dynamic things and it only takes seconds to drown – not very much time to save a life that gets stuck underwater.

People really need to weigh the risks for themselves. Every raft company has their clients sign wavers stating the risks. I’ve never seen anyone decide not to raft due to what is on the forms. People want the thrill and don’t believe danger will happen to them.

Increased Regulation will only create hesitant guides who avoid the thrills that rafters are paying to enjoy.

That’s my take anyway.

Thanks again!

July 25, 2011 at 6:05 am
(4) Neil says:

I have been a commercial raft guide for the last 20 years and a swiftwater rescue instructor for the last 10.

The press and insurance companies seem to rate whitewater rafting as one of the most dangerous activities that you can do.

The general public has the impression that rafting is like an amusement park ride (or at least if the activity was not safe it would be stopped).

If you have no training or experience, go to walmart and by a raft, and put on a grade 4 river in flood then you may well drown at the first rapid.

However if you go with an experienced guide, using the correct equipment and safety procedures then there is very little risk.

How much risk depends on: difficulty of the river, water level, experience and fitness of the crew as well as the guide and the good judgement of the trip leader & company about portaging rapids & canceling trips because of high water.

If just one of these points is ignored then the trip can be much more dangerous for the clients (not for the guides who have considerably more training & experience).

People love looking at statistics to see if they are going to win or lose, however you have to be very careful how you look at them to gain any knowledge.

To look at how dangerous driving is you would need to remove all the deaths attributed to: Driving too fast, using a mobile phone whilst driving, drunk driving etc etc. as you are not planning on doing any of that are you? But only for the parties doing that, not for the victims, as that is not under your control.

It may well be that many overweight clients have heart attacks rafting, maybe companies should warn overweight clients of this increased risk. However if you take them on a easier river where the chance of the raft flipping are practically nil then they can still have a safe rafting trip. Trying to swim in whitewater is what places a very high load on the heart, not sitting in a raft (even if you are paddling).

Have a safe & fun time on the river.

Neil

August 9, 2011 at 10:25 pm
(5) Andy says:

Lisa, quite a few people have been killed and injured at the Disney World/Land resorts. As pointed out above, people need to regulate their own activities. Always go with a guided tour, be in good enough physical shape, and properly wear all safety equipment.

I do disagree with your statement that these companies will take anyone on a trip. I’m planning a trip for next fall and can only bring my 18 year old son. My 12 year old is under the minimum age requirement.

August 29, 2011 at 7:23 am
(6) John says:

I had a bad experience on the Arkansas river on the numbers section at number 3 which wasn’t all that bad except one person stopped paddling and we lost concentration as the rock came up on us and we flipped. As I tried to surface i couldn’t it felt as if i was under a rck and couldn’t squirm out as the life perserver and weight on top trapped me, I thought this was it I’m done for but I didn’t panic. With really 1 -2 seconds left my head popped out and I was in the middlwe of the river and fought to swim to shore,,The guide later said when he moved the raft thats when i popped out so I can only guess as people were being loaded back onto the raft I was pinned under it,. I would suggest since all wear life perservers and will basically take a swim maybe the guides should be more concerned about who they don’t see in this situation,,but I loved it,,I’d do it again,,maybe…LOL

October 9, 2011 at 1:43 pm
(7) Valerie Quinn says:

Here’s a funny Huffington Post blog on the experience of whitewater rafting in Colorado.

http://tinyurl.com/3e5nd7m

March 26, 2012 at 11:53 pm
(8) Eric says:

I’ve been a raft guide for about a decade. I agree with most of the comments and I would never not recommend whitewater for anyone in decent physical shape.

I have a few thoughts I’ve come up with after years of working behind the curtain.

The dirty little secret of the rafting industry is that many companies do not adequately compensate their guides. Some companies are significantly better than others but as a consumer it is extremely hard to figure this out without knowing someone on the inside.

It is a lot like the regional commuter airline industry that shortcut costs by that employing under experienced pilots who get paid so poorly some of them have to use food stamps.

Even as an experienced commercial guide, it can be difficult to pay for rent and food during the season on raft guide pay. That is why most guides sleep in their vehicles or in tents. This leads to a much higher turnover rate (company dependent) and the consistent use of new inexperienced guides. There are some companies that rely heavily on new guides because it saves the company money. They can pay as low as $25 to $50 a day and I know of one or two that pay less. I also know of a couple companies that have extremely high rookie to senior guide ratios for this reason.

While I don’t think its necessarily unsafe to go with a new guide I don’t think there is anyone in the industry who would argue that the probability of a customer swimming isnít greater with a new guide. Swimming whitewater is where drowning and heart attacks occur…

March 26, 2012 at 11:55 pm
(9) eric says:

…When s*#t hits the fan it is typically the result of multiple compounded decisions and there are a million ways to approach the same recovery. The experience of a guide plays a huge factor in preventing a bad situation from taking place and in mitigating the danger once a bad situation does take place. Also, because real safety is found in guides working together as a team, the accumulated guide experience on any given trip is a huge factor in safety.

In my experience river classification is not a very relevant factor in determining safety because the easier classified sections are where they stick all the new guides to work. Generally most guides know what they are doing if they are on class IV. If a company pays terrible and has bad management generally the entire company is made up of new guides and the “senior guides” may only have two or three years experience. In a situation like that you can have a trip with 5 to 10 new guides and one second year guide. This is compounded with the fact that people who may be at greater risk for heart attacks (old, obese, or both) tend to choose class III trips because they think it is safer. This is not completely uncommon and in my opinion results in deaths…

March 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm
(10) eric says:

…The only legislation that might help is compensation rules for employees who hold thousands of lives in their hands. I don’t know about you but I am always in favor of paying people well for skill that directly safeguards the public lives. I find it funny that most people are amused to find out their raft guide sleeps in a truck or tent. You should be horrified! Do you really want your family’s life in the hands of someone who is homeless? Not that it necessarily means they are inexperienced, but it does raise the probability that you are getting someone who just learned how to tell the difference between the front and the back of a raft. Also, would you want your pilotís wage to be dependent on tips? A real wage would encourage more career guides and discourage turnover.

If this concerns you, I have a couple suggestions:

1) There are no guarantees in life and certainly not in whitewater. Regardless of who the guide is or what section you are rafting something can always happen… but its not likely. Accept it or stay at home.

2) When you make your reservation ask what the new guide to experienced guide ratio is. Ask how many new guides they trained that spring and how many total guides they have. Go with a company that has a higher ratio. Rafting is a team endeavor and the more experience on a trip the safer you are.

3) Request a senior guide. If you want more adventure request a brand new guide. Tip: the experienced guides are usually the ones with old beat up dirty life jackets as opposed to sparkling new ones.

July 3, 2012 at 7:24 am
(11) Anna Gray says:

Is the comparison between the 5 deaths deaths on amusement park rides in 2004 “alone” and 10 deaths on commercial whitewater rafting trips in 2006 intended to purport that commercial whitewater rafting is safer than amusemment park rides?

Regardless of which activity the author intended to support, such poor writing is evidence of the cultural epidemic of commercial writing without adequate editing.

July 4, 2012 at 4:01 pm
(12) Insignificant says:

@Anna

It sounds more like a problem with reading comprehension on your part then any “poor writing” or “evidence of the cultural epidemic of blah, blah, blah…”.

Your question is the first evidence of you not properly comprehending the article… the answer is no, at no point did the author try to purport that commercial whitewater rafting is safer than amusement park rides. The point he was trying to make was that there are risks involved in many activities, even with activities where you wouldn’t think so… such as going to the amusement park.

Your statement that follows, “Regardless of which activity the author intended to support” is further evidence of you completely missing the boat on what the author is writing about. He’s simply trying to put into perspective the general safety of commercial whitewater rafting, which is actually fairly safe if you look at the statistics, despite there still always being a risk present.

July 10, 2012 at 11:51 pm
(13) Anna Gray says:

Upon rereading the article, I see your point. It clearly was one of my more dense and self-congratulatory days. I really hate it when I am so wrong. Fortunately, the number of times I am right keeps me from getting too down. My motto is, “Say it loud, say it strong, and be prepared to admit when you are wrong!”

July 11, 2012 at 11:14 am
(14) Paddling says:

It’s all good!

March 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm
(15) da beast says:

this website/blog is epic

April 20, 2013 at 7:58 am
(16) TMH says:

My Management team talked me into a trip down one of the top 10. No experience, bad back, 2 post surgery shoulders (pitched college baseball). I was sure I was going to die and almost did (at least I thought so). NO ONE ASKED if I should or should not do this.
During a 1.5hr bus ride to the river the guide talked about every which way that you could die! To their credit-it scared the heck out of me. At the end of the ride, we were given the option of backing out and getting our money back. Had it not been for the “peer pressure” of my team mates, no way would I have gone. BOTTOM LINE: I am glad for the experience, but never NEVER again! Also, I had the 5th back surgery within 3 months of this trip! Sure the rafting expedited the need for back fusion!

May 5, 2013 at 4:27 pm
(17) Paul says:

As an experienced class V rafter, I thought I would add my two cents.

The real key to having a safe (and fun) afting experience is to MOVE UP THE DIFFICULTY SCALE SLOWLY !!

Begin with class III, and if you think that is all you can handle, then that is fine–stick with class III. Do several class III runs–NOT just 1–before moving up to class IV. The same thing goes for moving up to class V–before attempting class V, do several class IV runs–NOT just 1–before moving up to class V. Before moving up to a higher class, you should be able to fairly easily master the class you are on–NOT just survive it.

Do NOT EVER let anyone ever pressure you into running a more difficult run than you think you are ready for. When in doubt, or if you are not feeling it on a particular day, err on the side of caution. The river will still be there if and when you decide to run it some time in the future.

The key is to have fun at a water level at which you can tackle, and perhaps be challenged–but NOT overwhelmed.

June 17, 2013 at 4:25 pm
(18) Stephen says:

The key is experienced guides. I have taken commercial trips for 40 years and stick with the companies I trust. This weekend our entire raft was dumped in some level IVs. I stayed in the water for 2 minutes over some tough stuff, but I have always listened to the guides and training. It paid off. I thought I was done at the end, but one guide had finally gotten behind me in her raft and talked myself and my nephew through the last set on our backs safely. Fortunately we came up and she was on top of us ready to pluck us out. It would have been easier had I known they had pick up my teenage son within 30 seconds of our flip. I was overly concerned about him and was panicked. But I did what I was told and survived with a decent scar on my leg for war stories. First time I had taken my son and it was the first time being completely dumped. It happens but going with a good company with quality guides pay off.

June 24, 2013 at 3:04 am
(19) Ben says:

Also, be aware rafting is not kayaking and kayaking is not rafting. Just because you paid for a raft trip down the gauley last fall doesn’t mean you can buy a kayak and go run the gauley next fall. You can’t and you’ll likely get yourself killed if you were fool enough to try it. The difference between a raft with an experienced guide and a whitewater kayak is massive! That said, WW kayaking is amazing and when your learning even class II stuff feels exciting so don’t think you’ll be “bored” while learning, you won’t!

June 24, 2013 at 1:51 pm
(20) DNH says:

My Husband died in a White Water rafting accident in September 2009. He was healthy, strong and a first timer. I urge everyone I know not to go on a White Water Rafting trip…as I know the risk, My three year old son (7 now) knows the risk. It is something we live with everyday.

July 2, 2013 at 7:10 pm
(21) Missy says:

Our friend died about two weeks ago. I don’t know his level of experience, but the Class V rapids he and others we were allowed to travel on are running way too fast for commercial rafters to send customers down. The notion that having an expert on the raft is enough is crazy. That helps no one when they are stuck in a hydraulic and don’t know what to do. The website for the rafting company makes it all sound so fun and easy. They played with peoples’ lives and they lost.

July 28, 2013 at 4:48 am
(22) Flipper says:

As a whitewater enthusiast, I use these statistics on a regular basis to explain the levity of the situation. There are thousands of customers every day going on rafting trips who do not die or sustain serious injury; however, the threat is still there. Foot entrapment and hydraulics can be a big issue for inexperienced rafters and those who panic. Recently, I went on a two tenths of a mile class IV rapid “swim”(class V swim). It is not fun, and I was sore the next day. Alas, I am alive without any serious injuries, but I have a new found respect for the water. I will still raft every week. The most important thing was not to panic, which until you swim a rapid, is impossible to prepare for.

Rafting is a calculated risk. Your percent risk of dying is about 1-2% with a commercial trip, but on the flip side, that means your risk of surviving is 98-99%. So, relatively, it is safe. People just need to remember that you need to be in decent physical shape and listen to your guides. Most importantly, NEVER STAND UP IN MOVING WHITE WATER!

I thoroughly recommend giving rafting a try. Just remember to do a guided tour and don’t bite off more than you can chew for your first trip. Air on the side of caution.

August 24, 2013 at 6:20 pm
(23) Lora says:

It is natural for professional white water rafting guides to defend their industry. However, I had a near drowning experience on a commercial trip on the Ocoee River. I am in good shape and have rafted before. Unfortunately, we had 4 others on the raft that could barely lift the paddle let alone help along the trip and our guide was on “probation” because he was new. I knew we were in trouble when we got stuck on rocks 3 times the first 5 minutes in the river. Needless to say we all got tossed at one point with the exception of my daughter. Even the guide was tossed from the raft. I was caught in a vortex with none stop rafts coming over the top of me as it was a busy day on the river.

I don’t blame anyone for getting caught in the vortex. I do blame the lack of regulation of the number of rafts on the river, no one on probation should be allowed to take a group by themselves, no one really assessed our raft to make sure we were a “balanced/capable” group and they did a horrible job of pulling me out of the river once I did come up. Needless to say once I got back in the boat I made them pull to shore and got my family off.

Whitewater rafting does need to be a regulated activity. Even amusement parks have federal requirements to check out equipment annually, capacity limits for rides etc. NEVER AGAIN!

August 25, 2013 at 11:53 pm
(24) Ed says:

I agree that a lot of it is ‘go at your own risk’ and people should be aware of the danger with the activity. However, MUCH of the issue with WWR is the lack of regulation, but relating more so to the actual guides, whom are the ones that inevitably have your safety in their hands.

I have gone on the Ocoee River a few times over the last 5 years, using the same company each time (and I had been rafting a number of times before that on other rivers as well). The first time we went, our guide was amazing. He actually complained about some of the younger guides who basically get the job for the rush and do whichever run they want to do.

This last time we went, which was last fall, we did a ‘full river’ trip (upper as well as middle) and our guide was completely awful. He was a young kid, 26 years old, and he was very vocal about how it was his last day and he wanted to go out with a bang, and how he wanted to impress a new female guide in another raft, and how he was going to take us down the ‘fun’ way, etc. To keep it short, the raft almost flipped four times, he continued to ‘surf’ in a particularly nasty rapid even though all in the boat objected, and 4 of us in the boat were dumped. I was dumped in a bad vortex, had the raft come up on my head 3 times, and I was BARELY pulled back into the raft before he floated out and left me to fend for myself in the vortex. When someone else got dumped and was separated, he made little attempt to pick them up and usually said, “The watch boat will get him/her.” He was terrible. I actually called to complain after the trip, to pretty indifferent owners. They barely offered an apology, let alone any type of refund.

That’s the issue. There’s no official training, barely any requisites (if any), and no time requirements either. With the air-tight waivers everyone signs, that’s the company’s cue to say, “Thanks for the money, now we don’t care.” You can argue that, but it’s pretty much how it works.

August 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm
(25) jd says:

It never ceases to amaze me that people think they should be protected from everything all of the time.

Every human is a fragile soul. As long as you are alive, you are susceptible to death. EVERYONE WILL DIE.

In school, you were taught about velocity. You were taught about drowning in water. At some point in your life, you have experienced pain from something harder than your body. If you get on a whitewater raft, you are moving (velocity) with the potential to hit a hard rock or boulder, and can drown, because you are in water. With little research, you will find that whitewater is white, because it is oxygenated and contains lots of air. You cant swim in air. Feel free try it out.

You are accepting risk. You sign a waiver that tells you it is dangerous. I find it hard to imagine that anyone can place blame for their own actions. You likely drove yourself to the river. You made the decision to try this. You are a free human being that makes decisions for yourself. If you die while doing that, it is your fault period.

If you read this article, you should put things into perspective. You had a greater chance of dying while traveling to the river.

You are not a truly a free person, unless you accept personal responsibility, and accept the fact that some things in life are beyond human control.

September 3, 2013 at 4:01 pm
(26) RS says:

@ jd,

Your view is too simplistic. When people sign up for WWR at their own risk, there are certain assumptions they make. For example, you assume that your guide is competent and knows the river well. Would you still go on a rafting trip if you know your guide is young, very inexperienced and looking for adrenaline for his last ride of the season? That’s what many people are talking about in this thread. Sometimes people underestimate the risks involved in an activity, but just as often people’s reasonable assumptions (about the experience and attitude of the guide, the safety of the gear, etc.) are betrayed by unscrupulous operators. Do you think you still have only yourself to blame in that kind of situation?

April 1, 2014 at 2:03 am
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