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Paddling deaths

There has been a couple posts in the last few weeks about accident statistics
for kayaking. I recently came across an excellent article that looks into this
subject. The article is:

American Whitewater Boating Non-motorized human powered Boating
Safety Report: 1995-1998, Jennifer L. Plyler, Ph.D. American
Whitewater, March/April 2001

This article looked at accident reports from American White Water and US coast
Guard Boater Accident reports to get a handle on fatalities in paddle-sports
and factors that contribute to them. I urge people interested in safety issues
in our sport to take a look at this article. Its title says white water, but
they cover flatwater, ocean and river accidents.

I wont summarize the whole article here. I will just hit on the key points.

First, the face of paddle-sports is changing. In 1994, there were 400,000
kayak enthusiasts (defined as paddling 10 or more times per year) and 3.6
million canoe enthusiasts. By 1999, these numbers had shifted to 600,000 kayak
enthusiasts and 2.1 million canoe enthusiasts. Rafting is slipping even faster
than canoeing with 7.8 million enthusiasts in 1995 and only 1.7 million in
1999. So kayaking is growing while canoeing and rafting is shrinking.

Within kayaking, the trends are shifting towards sea kayaking. In 1998,
retailers identified recreational kayaks as their top market segment (31%
compared to 18% for sea kayaking). In 1999, this had shifted to 25% for
recreational kayaking and 30% for sea kayaking. The canoe eats up about a third
of the market, though its on a downward trend.

What about paddling fatalities?

The deaths per year bounce around the low to mid 100s with 158 in 1998, a high
of 163 in 1989, and a low of 83 in 1984. Looking at the data (and Im lazy I
did not compute a mean), it seems that on average, we are looking at around 140
deaths per year. Of these deaths, over 60% of the victims were not wearing

Its hard to pull the number off the figures in the paper, but it looks like in
1998, around 25 kayakers suffered fatal accidents. Sea kayakers account for
around 5% of the total paddle-sport deaths. This fraction has held steady even
as the number of sea kayakers has grown.

The data is sketchy for recreational kayaks. Charlie Walbridge (the white-water
worlds guru of safety) estimates only a couple deaths per year in the
recreational kayak segment. This is an area where the coast guard needs to
keep more careful statistics.

The most dangerous craft by far was canoes. They represent well over half of
all fatalities and the trend is sharply increasing. One explanation is the
tendency among canoeists to neglect wearing their PFDs. Over the last few
years, 80% of all canoe fatalities where at least in part due to not wearing a
PFD. This compares to around 20% for the kayak fatalities.

The accidents were roughly evenly split between white-water and flat-water.
Ocean kayaking accounted for negligible numbers of fatalities (note: the
article does not define what they mean by ocean in this context). Expert
white water kayakers in class V water account for around a quarter of

There is much more --- as I said, if you are interested in this subject, I
suggest you get the magazine and read the article.


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Paddling deaths
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