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How do river accidents really happen?

How do river accidents really happen?

How do accidents really happen?

Accidents don’t just happen --they are caused. To say "accidents happen" dehumanizes and clouds the issue as to what actually occurred. A good working definition of an accident is: an effect caused by human error combined with variables either known or unknown at the time of the incident. For example, when you wrap a boat on a rock, something took place to make that boat wrap; after all it didn’t just wrap itself. What matters here are the variables.

What is an accident-causing variable?

Tobin Flip

Variables come in many forms and can be so subtle that they seem to go unnoticed until after the accident has taken place. Variables can be as small as changing the position of a strap or bag on a thwart. River culture is by and large pretty laid back, but that culture often lends us to forget that we are athletes at our core. As athletes we tend to get annoyed when people alter our setups, change our rigging, or do not follow directions to mitigate risk. The best example of this comes from commercial guiding. When guests take their hands off of t-grips it introduces a new uncontrolled element into the raft. Most accidents in commercial guiding come from guests letting go of their t-grips and smacking someone else in the face.

T-grips make clear sense, but why would such a laid back group of people get so mad because you put the buckle of the strap on the wrong side of the thwart? Any good guide will tell you that this is not the way we do things, but we all know at on a deeper level that what bothers us is the introduction of a variable with unknown outcomes that causes that reaction. I have several scars from guides who rigged a buckle on the wrong side of the thwart and my shin impacted the buckle after a hard hit from a drop or a wave. While seeming harmless at the time, these slight changes can have lasting effects. 

Other examples of variables which could contribute to the cause of an accident include:

  • Under or over inflated tubes
  • Hard objects rigged without padding or in an unusual spot
  • A new piece of gear
  • Different river flows
  • Perimeter lines
  • Flip lines around the waist vs. in a pocket
  • Different paddlers in your boat

Please note that these are examples of what is a potentially accident-causing variable. Again we need to stress "potentially" because by itself the variable does not cause the accident. It is a combination of factors with the variable contributing to the accident. The best way to think of it would be that the variable is like a stone on the river bank. Only by interacting with it by say throwing it into the river it will cause ripples across a placid pool.

How variables cause accidents

Variables are inevitably subject to human error which is the actual cause of accidents, however variables affect the probability of an accident’s likeliness. Variables cause accidents by adding increasing controllable risk and pushing your comfort zone. Theoretically speaking, if the probability of an accident is 10% in any given rapid and you knew that rigging your boat in a certain way would reduce the probability of an accident by 3% it makes sense that you would rig your boat in a very specific way to avoid that 3% of risk. By reducing this 3% margin we establish our comfort zone within the factors within our control. (Please note that although these percentages are theoretical to make it easier to explain, it is never as clear cut in real life)  The most important consideration here is to reduce this controllable risk if it is within your power to reduce risk and some foresight and preplanning can make your boating safer then clearly that is a critical consideration. We do this by reducing the number of variables that increase risk.

Variables vs. your comfort zone


As guides we have a lot of bravado and we genuinely need to push our comfort zone to become better boaters. There are better and worse ways to push our comfort zone though. Pushing your comfort zone by its nature is the act of introducing new variables and adapting to them. Running a new river or a big rapid that you have not run before are prime example of better ways to push your comfort zone. In our above theoretical example pushing that 3% rigging threshold is not a good way to push your comfort zone.

This principal is best described as altering variables that are within your control is generally not a good way to push your comfort zone while altering variables outside your control can be a good way to push your comfort zone. This is of course predicated on a variety of factors relating to good judgment in relation to what your limits and experience are.

More variables compound risk

Were things become more dangerous is when you add and compound variables. A lower risk scenario would look something like this:

  • You are boating with the same person that you have been boating with for the last year
  • You rig your boat in the same standard way that you both are used to
  • You are on a river that you are comfortable with

Clearly in this scenario your odds of risk are clearly going to be comparatively lower however when we add in a new variable of say a new boater your risk, as we previously established, will clearly increase.

Lobin Wrap

Things will get even trickier when you begin add even more variables. Let’s say in addition to the new paddler you head out to a new river. This doesn’t just increase risk it compounds it. Let’s say adding a new boater increases the risk by 3% and running a new river increases the risk by 5% the net result is actually in excess of 8%, not the sum of the two percentages. This can be initially hard to see since most accident statistics are based on a single factor such as a wrap or a flip, but the deeper question is why did the wrap or the flip occur? Human error tends to be the quickest answer that we could default to, however it doesn’t capture the full picture of what really happened. Was it a lack of skill? Did an inexperienced guide or paddler get scared and freeze up? Was it that the guide did not fully understand the feature? The key to true understanding and perspective is to understand the big picture of how all the variables played a part in the accident. This begs the question: Are all variables bad things though?

Adding more variables can be helpful

Carnage Rock

Variables are not always bad things. Risk and benefits must be carefully weighed to understand what combination will work best. For instance some groups are of the impression that everyone should have a throw bag, however many accidents occur from lines in the water. So do we give everyone a throw bag regardless of their experience? Do we only give throw bags to experienced boaters? The answer is not as cut and dry as rafting company or government agency policies would like to make it seem. On the one hand the throw bag can be extremely useful as a rescue tool, on the other even an experienced boater can get tangled up in the line or pulled off a rock. Policies and decisions are made based on a risk assessment.

Does the benefit of having a piece of equipment outweigh the dangers that the gear poses to the users?
— Daniel Jenkins

Some people prefer perimeter lines some do not what really matters lies in weather or not the line is necessary to run the trip and are the benefits outweighing the consequences. It is possible for guests or guides to get tangled in them, but they can help especially on technical Class IV and V where wraps are a constant threat.

Considerations for reducing variables

To learn from any experience it is important to not just put the cause in a box and blame everything on one factor. If we understand the variables and how those variables caused the accident then we can begin to truly learn from the experience.

Get comfortable with the people you boat with since the more you know how they boat and what their limits are the better your chances that you can mitigate your risk.

Discuss with fellow boaters the question: Does the benefit of having a piece of equipment outweigh the dangers that the gear poses to the users? Doing this for every element of the trip which is within your control will help you understand if you are exposing yourself to uncontrolled risk hidden in plain sight.

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