Whitewater Rafting is very safe, CNN!

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I’ve been looking into missing people, danger, and death for the Danger Database project and noted this CNN headline that screams “Whitewater Deaths surge in US”, noting that recently about 50 people per year die on whitewater trips.

Until I got to the last paragraph they almost had me buying into the idea that rafting is really dangerous. I take my kids rafting and certainly realize there is risk, but I’ve been assuming it’s well worth the educational and recreations value of a raft trip down the Rogue River or other great whitewater rivers here in Oregon or other place. I started to wonder but luckily I read this : “Ten million Americans take whitewater trips each summer”.

OK, let’s do the math: 50 people out of 10,000,000 die while rafting. Assuming you take an “average” rafting trip your chances of death are 50/10,000,000 or 1/200,000. Looking at it in the common death statistic parlance this is .5 deaths per 100,000 people which is a very reasonable degree of risk I think, though I need to bone up on my death stats for other activities. Hmmm – 1987 skydiving killed 1 for every 75,000 jumps and it looks like Hang Gliding is the most dangerous activity but I need to find better stats. Lightning appears to average 90 deaths per year, handily beating out rafting in terms of simple numbers.

Of course your chances are actually much lower than 1/200,000 if you avoid rafting while drunk and taking unneccessary risks, which I understand contribute to a lot of the accidents in rafting and many other human pursuits as well.

Hmm – based on some stats I dug up it looks like an hour of rafting is about 3x more dangerous than an hour of driving (ie based on my wild and quick calculations you are 3x more likely to die rafting for an hour than driving for an hour).   Still, it would appear to be a fairly/very safe activity.   See comments below for details

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About JoeDuck

Internet Travel Guy, Father of 2, small town Oregon life. BS Botany from UW Madison Wisconsin, MS Social Sciences from Southern Oregon. Top interests outside of my family's well being are: Internet Technology, Online Travel, Globalization, China, Table Tennis, Real Estate, The Singularity.
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36 Responses to Whitewater Rafting is very safe, CNN!

  1. speedgliding says:

    In 2006, so far, there have been a total of ZERO hang gliding deaths. This is with about 6000 pilots in the united states.

    If each pilot did only 20 flights a year, that would be 0 out of 120,000 flight death rate.

    Hang gliding is statistically quite safe compared to most extreme sports.

    Each sky dive “jump” only last a few minutes. A hang gliding flight can last for several hours, so its an apples and oranges comparison to start with.

  2. joeduck says:

    Thx for stats Speedgliding and also correctly noting the time factor, which makes the analysis more complicated.

    So if it’s relatively safe why are the insurance companies so fearful of hang gliding? For many life insurance I’m pretty sure it’s an auto refusal if you even *plan* to hang glide at any time?

    Feel free to link to any data sources you have – just throw it up as www. link .com and it’ll auto link.

  3. Paul says:

    Fear sells, what can I say? I have been whitewater rafting for 30 years and guided commercially for 6 or 7 years of that 30. It is all about lifejackets !!! Statistically very, very few people die on whitewater trips if they are properly secured into a PFD. This summers drownings on the Deschutes were a statistical anomaly, and among the first PFD drownings I can remember on that river.

    Review drowning statistics in general for all kinds of watersport activities, esp swimming in rivers and lakes, and one line repeated over and over quickly jumps out at you, “subject was not wearing a lifejacket”. For whitewater accidents that DO involve a lifejacket, it is often reported later subjects had heart attacks and that, not the water, is what killed them. The other major factor is improperly secured life jackets that come off in whitewater.

    Rafting is not risk free, but relative to many other sports it is not the perilous endeavor that CNN piece made it appear.

  4. thehendricksreport says:

    Nice piece. What is the ratio of people dying in car accidents? Has to be alot more than that…just a thought. If rafting and hang gliding….Mountain climbing are dangerous, stupid and need more guidelines, then why are we all allowed to go on driving our cars everyday?

  5. joeduck says:

    Paul I think you are right – the scary headlines get read more so the “angle” for news is sensationalism.

    Alan I’m trying to look into that as well. The autos comparison needs to take into account the fact we spend a lot more time in them as well, but I’m guessing that you are not much safer driving for one day than rafting for a day.

    However, I’m afraid that Speedgliding’s going to have to cite more state to convince me that handgliding for a day is without much risk.

  6. joeduck says:

    Per this 2004 study Americans take about 4.23 billion trips x 52 weeks = 220 billion trips annually.
    42,800 died on highways in 2004.
    This is one traffic death per 5.2 million one way trips.

    At first glance much safer than a rafting trip, but how would the time spent rafting vs driving compare? An average raft trip around here is several hours long….

    OK, here’s a study noting average trip length at 9.9 miles:

    Assuming 30mph (my guess) this average road trip takes 20 minutes.

    Let’s assume (my guess again) that an average *rafting* trip is 3 hours.

    Driving: 5.2 million trips x 1/3 hour = 1.73 million driving hours per driving death.

    Rafting: 200,000 trip x 3 hours = 600,000 rafting hours per rafting death.

    Oh no, rafting is about 3x more dangerous than driving, though I’d call this well within acceptable risk limits cuz rafting is more fun and educational!

  7. Paul says:

    I’d rather spend 10 hours on a raft than 1 minute in a car :-)

  8. joeduck says:

    Right you are Paul, especially if it’s a minute in Class III or IV rapids in a pristine wilderness! Wear the jacket, don’t be drunk, and enjoy the ride…

  9. Paul says:

    Klamath, Rogue, Illinois – you live near some of the finest whitewater in the state, lucky you. Does “Joe Duck” mean you’re a U.O. alum, or is it just a reference to this being the webfoot state due to all the rain ?

  10. joeduck says:

    Hi Paul – this really is a great river place though I’ve only rafted the Rogue. The “Joe Duck” is actually from my ability to talk like Donald Duck though it also fit Oregon well. My schooling was at UW Madison and then an M.S. at Southern Oregon State.

  11. Paul says:

    Joe – ah, a SOC graduate, a great place to go to school (well it used to be called that). If you want to see a stunningly beautiful river try the Illinois sometime. Not for the fainthearted, and definitely go with a guide, but it’s a step-up from the Rogue and the 2nd day is some of the most exciting, adrenalin producing whitewater in the state.

  12. thehendricksreport says:

    Nice stats, way to break them down…although sort of a surprise.

    Now I am wondering what the stats would be if you got drunk, didn’t wear a lifejacket, but strapped the boat to the roof of your car…let your wife drive, while you raft I-75…

    Just a thought..

    Anyone up for a the newest extreme sport? I call it “Auto-Rafting”

  13. Its safer to raft than drive a car

  14. joeduck says:

    Ituloy – I would have thought so too until I did the math. My two assumptions (raft trips last 3 hours on average and car trips 20 minutes) could be off but otherwise I think this is good math. One factor I’m not clear on however are the number of people per car and raft trip – I’ve assumed ONE.

  15. Paul says:

    14 – That is tough to answer, but it generally works like this: IF it is a day-float, paddle rafts are commonly used which hold 5 to 7 paying customers depending on size of raft. Overnight floats like the Rogue a more common number would be 2 or 3 passengers per raft as there is gear to contend with which generally fills the back of the craft.

  16. joeduck says:

    Paul – that makes sense, but what I meant was how are those “trip” statistics calculated. When they say 10 million take raft trips annually I assume it accounts for the fact there are several in the boat – ie the number of rafters taking a trip is greater than the number of raft trips and I’m assuming the car stats mean “per person” rather than “vehicle trips” which would lower the risk per person hour.

    Until I see new numbers I’ll have to stick to the “driving is safer per people hour”, though I’d agree that the small extra risk from rafting is worth it. Also complicating a really good analysis is that to go on a rafting trip around here you usually must drive for at least one or two hours to get there, esp if you are shuttling cars.

    So is that driving risk or rafting risk? Also the time issue becomes really important with sports like Hang Gliding or Parachuting where you are spending lots of driving time and prep time for only a few minutes of air.

    Short event times will tend to *reduce* the risk measurement relative to an “event to event” comparison where the time it takes to do the trip is not measured. I think insurance companies are using an event to event type of comparison rather than a time to time comparison to conclude that hang gliding is dangerous.

  17. Nothing is more fun that a family whitewater outing trip as long as safety comes first and everyone is aware of their responsibilities in case of a mishap. As fun as shooting rapids is, there is still an element of danger and we must always be prepared.

  18. Fools Gold says:

    Risk is generally misperceived.
    Lightening deaths are ‘normalized’ based on population but the risk is highly skewed to rural areas and outdoor recreation. Darn few lightening strikes in the canyons of Manhattan!

    And ofcourse something is sure to be unhealthful about Arizona air, so many people die of tuberculosis there!

    The ‘one in eight’ breast cancer statistic is forever bandied about in a very politicized debate but it is nothing more than meaningless propaganda or atbest useless information.

    White water rafting is dangerous when someone is told ‘have a death grip on your paddle or have it completely out of the water’ but a few minutes later is in a group photograph where she is dabbling the paddle in calm water and holding it loosely. Any wonder which of the people in the photo had her two front teeth knocked out later that day? Not something a young woman likes to have happen to her but not really a risk of white water rafting as much of a risk of not listening to the warning lecture!

  19. JoeDuck says:

    Good points Fools Gold…

    Hey, I think you’ve also explained the mysterious toothless woman photo hanging in the rafting hall of fame! She went on to become a dentist, but died in a car crash while using her cell phone to call in a 911 on a rafting shuttle accident along a wilderness road where the driver had swerved to miss the deer running from a couple of crashing hang-gliders. Her toothlessness made it impossible for the operator to understand her so she drove over a cliff in frustration.

    Now if that isn’t rafting risk I don’t know what is!

  20. Zac says:

    Another factor is how you operationally define “rafter.” There are many river users that could fall into the catagory of “rafter.” Some users to consider are:

    1.Customers of proffesional outfitters
    2.Private users who own and operate their own equipment
    3.Tubers (people riding in innertubes, generally without PFDs or helmets to counteract the increased risk factor of having thier head come into contact with rocks).
    4.Fishermen in tubes
    5.Users who attempt whitewater rapids in substandard rafts (the type easily purchased at Wal-Mart or similar stores for minimum cost).

    “PFDs are like seatbelts, they can’t work if you wont wear one.”

  21. Kim Hyder says:

    I almost got killed in a white water rafting trip this weekend.I rafted the dead river in maine in class IV white water. the guy in front of me lost his footing, banged into me and me into my friend in back of me. We both fell in. Dragged a mile down the rapids. Our boat panicked, it took another boat 10 minutes later to rescue us. We were battered from the rocks, I was barely conscious AND AND my lifejacket did NOT protect me from going under the crashing pull of white water, as a matter of fact I remember being on my stomach most of the time and trying to lift my head out of water. IT CAN be dangerous!

    • chirs says:

      to kim, as a white water guide in NZ, i would like to point out that a life jacket will not keep you out of the white water at all times.rivers power is huge appeared to any human force you can put on a river wat so ever. if swimming you are going to go under, that is that, sounds like your mate should have held on to the raft when you went through the rapids, and if ur guide told you to go into the white water float position you should have been on your back with your feet up. not on your stomach, unless you were aggressively swimming through rapids.

  22. yagmur says:



  23. Paul says:

    Question on #21 for Kim: Was it a commercial float or a private trip ? 10 minutes is a long time to be in a class IV rapid, most outfitters would not allow that to happen.

    RE: Lifejackets and whitewater: there is a common assumption that lifejackets keep your head above water at all times. WRONG – they are buoyant in water, and when you are in a rapid often the water is highly aerated, thus diminishing the floatation of the jacket. Regardless of aeration, wave action, currents and hydraulics are frequently strong enough in rapids to take you under for brief periods. Invariably you will pop to the surface. A good commercial outfitter typically goes over how to breath strategically in a rapid, though to be fair it is a skill that takes practice and most neophytes are going to forget all that in the panic of being in the water.

    Class IV water is very serious whitewater and should be treated accordingly.

    DEFINITION – Class IV -Very difficult, long, extended rapids that require careful maneuvering of the raft; powerful irregular waves, strong hydraulics and dangerous rocks are common. The course is hard to determine and scouting is often necessary. These conditions can make rescue difficult.

  24. Piet Nirvana says:

    when you say it’s ove. Piet Nirvana.

  25. David Brown says:

    The most obvious flaw in the CNN story is that the deaths they cited are all the whitewater deaths compiled by American Whitewater, not commercial rafting fatalities. This figure includes kayaks, self-guided whitewater boaters of all types which are five times higher than commercially guided fatalities. CNN tried to make it appear that all these deaths were from commercial raft trips.

  26. Paul says:

    I still feel safer in my raft than I ever feel on I-5 at rush hour :P David makes an excellent point, commercial trips are far safer and the level of fatalities far lower, the CNN story paints a biased picture.

  27. Tessa says:

    Obviously this blog is from a long time ago, but I stumbled upon it while searching for info about whitewater deaths. Thanks for posting this. Also, the best way to ensure your safety is to go with an outfitter and go on a river that is a good level. You said you did the Rogue, obviously a great choice for a family trip. There’s a good website in California, where I began my river career, that lets you compare the outfitters and has information about a bunch of different rivers: guide to whitewater rafting and kayaking in California

  28. FoolsGold says:

    I doubt if fatalities is the best measure of white water rafting safety. Injuries to the face from paddle handles, injuries to the knees and non-fatal head impacts with rocks would probably be a better measure of safety.

    Overall, its probably a quite safe sport, but its good to have information available.

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  30. ALex McLane says:

    To add to that I don’t think the percentage of deaths go up with more advanced rafting trips even though the numbers are much smaller. I’ve guided a class II whitewater section for four summers in Colorado and we’ve had a death on that stretch every year I’ve been there and just upstream from that section is a Class V section were I haven’t heard of any deaths the years I’ve worked there.

  31. Well, these accidents can be prevented considering that we are given instructions before we engage to a certain activity. All we need to do is to take responsibility by adhering on the guidelines in each stretch and I think we’ll manage quite well. I couldn’t agree more on this.

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