White Water Boating Is Safer Than You Think (Really!) Apparently white water tragedies make good press; after all, most kayaking, rafting, and canoeing accidents are widely reported in local papers and on the evening news. This creates an illusion that the sport is unsafe. Reality, however, paints a different picture of risk. In fact, a new study by American Whitewater finds that the fatality rate for white water recreation is 15 times lower than driving and twice as safe as bicycling. It is also much safer than recreational boating as a whole.

The good news is that the risks of white water paddling are quite manageable and are mitigated through training, use of a personal floatation device (PFD), and development of good personal judgment. The drive to the river is probably the most dangerous part of any white water trip.

American Whitewater has just completed a five-year study to determine the risk of drowning from white water boating. We collected use data from 30 white water rivers of various difficulties from across the country. The result: less than 1 fatality per 100,000 white water participants. The complete study will be printed in the September/October issue of American Whitewater. As Jason Robertson, Access Director, observed, “While white water drownings are tragedies of a very personal nature for the victim’s family and friends, these accidents, fortunately, are rare. Most paddlers will never encounter a serious accident at any time in their boating career. Among white water kayakers, who have a higher accident rate compared to canoers and rafters, the fatality rate is only 2.9 per 100,000 participants.

When compared to other active outdoor sports, kayaking is safer than scuba diving (3.5) and climbing on rock, snow, or ice (3.2). Lee Belknap, Chair of American Whitewater’s Safety Committee, observed that “Safety in the sport is related to experience, training, and personal judgment. However, the ONE item that makes the single greatest contribution to personal safety on the water is the use of a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD).” Although not really a problem among experienced white water paddlers or passengers on professionally guided raft trips,

American Whitewater has found that improper use of a PFD (including the failure to wear one on the water) is responsible for at least half of all fatalities in both flat and moving water. Charlie Walbridge, another American Whitewater Safety Committee member and author of many swift water safety books, agreed with Belknap, saying “Life jackets truly save lives. Whether you are kayaking across a lake, floating your canoe on a pond, or rafting the class V Gauley River, you can cut your chances of drowning in half by properly wearing your PFD.”

by Jason Robertson,
American Whitewater
August 31, 2000.
Reprinted in the Eddy Line, October 2000