The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love

Many of us participate in activities and sports that are at least somewhat dangerous.  However, most of us also do not have a full appreciation of how risky these activities really are, especially compared to other things that we could be doing instead.

We just love our favorite pastime and facing up to its risks can be stressful because we also want to be safe while having fun. Psychologists call this type of stress “cognitive dissonance”, and we intuitively look for ways to remove the discomfort of our conflicting emotions, often by downplaying the risks to ourselves and to others. 

E.g., when I became a glider pilot some 35 years ago, my instructors used to proclaim that “the most dangerous aspect of the sport is the drive to the airport”.  This was a widely held belief at the time even though it could not have been further from the truth. And while the slogan was famously debunked by the prominent German pilot Bruno Gantenbrink in his speech “Safety comes first“, our instinct to downplay the risks to ourselves (and to others) has of course remained.

Given our natural inclination to deceive ourselves, it is not surprising that good data about the factual risks of many activities can be difficult to come by.  And even if data are reported, they are often accompanied by statements that soften, blur, or contradict the facts, frequently through the use of misleading comparisons.

Here is just one such example from scuba diving in which the author asserts that scuba diving is safer than driving a car. She does this by comparing the statistic that 1 in 5,555 people were killed in a car accident in 2008 with the statistic that only 1 out of 212,000 dives ended deadly.  Did you catch the fundamental flaw?  The comparison would be ok only if each driver would drive just once a year.  In reality, each driver makes on average 2 trips per day, i.e. 730 car trips per year, which means that the 5,555 drivers drove in aggregate about 4 million times (5555*730).  I.e., 1 in 4,000,000 drives ended deadly vs 1 in 212,000 dives. By this – still not perfect, but definitely more comparable – measure diving isn’t safer than driving but instead about 19x more dangerous! No matter the sport or activity, you’ll quickly find similar examples of apples to oranges comparisons and a conscious or subconscious attempt to downplay the risks.

When I looked for data on risky sports and activities, I also found the other extreme: a Google search will return plenty of articles listing “the most dangerous sports in the world,” almost all of which try to make most sports sound insanely dangerous. However, more often than not these articles are just click-bait to generate ad revenue and lack any serious effort to get to the facts.  Even the most well-intentioned ones that actually quote their sources tend to suffer from one of two major problems: either they lack a common denominator and therefore compare stats that are just not comparable; or they use a denominator that isn’t all that meaningful such as the general population while ignoring the differences in participation rates among different sports.

I wanted to know the honest truth and so I set out to do the research myself.  The most important decision that I had to make at the outset was to select the most appropriate basis of comparison and hence, what denominator to use.  I concluded that the most meaningful datapoint to me is the risk of dying (and the risk of getting injured) per hour of participating in a particular activity.  There are two reasons I picked this risk per participation hour as the most sensible base of comparison: First, it allows me to compare different choices for my spare time, e.g., the risk of spending an afternoon riding a mountain bike vs the risk of spending the same afternoon flying a sailplane. Second, it gives me a sense of how serious the risk really is and therefore how carefully I should prepare to mitigate it.

The graphic that we’ll get to below shows what I came up with.  To facilitate the readability of the comparison, I benchmarked all activities against traveling on commercial airlines, which happens to be one of the safest things you can do when you leave your home:  only once in 10 million passenger hours (i.e., once in 1,141 years) will a passenger die when traveling on a commercial airline.  In other words, the chance of a person dying within their next 1,000 participation hours is only 0.01%.

Other activities that I participate in regularly such as driving, cycling, skiing (on and off piste), or marathon running aren’t nearly as safe as traveling on an airliner but they are still quite safe.

Unfortunately, my favorite sport, flying sailplanes, aka soaring, is one of the more dangerous activities.  There are no reliable participation data available for the US but I found quite solid information for Germany and France where soaring is much more practiced than in the US.  In both countries the sport has a fatality rate of 1 in 50,000 participation hours; i.e., the risk of dying within the next 1,000 hours of participation is 2%, about twice as high as the risk involved in riding motorcycles.  It also means that an active pilot, who flies about 100 hours per season, has a 1 in 50 chance of dying in the sport within the next decade, and it makes soaring about 200 times more dangerous as traveling on a commercial jet. Other air sports tend to have similar risks:  flying powered airplanes is just a little bit safer whereas hang-gliding and paragliding are somewhat more dangerous.

Some of the data surprised me.  E.g., I found driving, skiing, and cycling to be safer that I expected, whereas climbing the Tetons and especially Mt Everest is actually much more dangerous than I anticipated.  Not surprising to me was the insanely high risk involved in Base Jumping, which is shown to be 480,000 times more dangerous than commercial aviation, with an expected death per 21 hours of participation, and practically no chance at all to survive the next 1,000 hours of flying through the air.  If you’re a Base Jumper you are likely to complain that my methodology of counting only the short duration of the jump (and, e.g., not the time you spend climbing up the mountain) puts your sport into an unfair light.  To that I say feel free to count differently if you want to convince yourself that jumping is safer than it really is.  As I pointed out above, you certainly won’t be alone in your desire to deceive yourself.

Unfortunately, all the information in the chart below only refers to the risk of death and does not account for the risk of injuries.  The reason is simply the fact that data about injuries are extremely unreliable since the great majority of sport injuries are never reported and/or accounted as such.  (The omission of injury information also means that activities that tend to have a relatively high injury to death ratio (e.g. skiing, equestrian eventing, marathon running, riding motorcycles, hang gliding, paragliding, downhill mountain biking) might look relatively safer than they really are, and activities that have a relatively low injury to death ratio (e.g. general aviation, soaring, skydiving) might appear relatively more dangerous than they really are.)

Without further ado, here is the chart:

Another way to look at the same data is to compare them to the normal risk of dying (of any cause) at different life stages.  Life insurance companies keep track of these risks as they seek to adjust their premiums based on the age of the insured.  It should be intuitive that an 18 year old person has a much lower risk of dying within their next 1,000 life-hours than a 90 year old.

Below is a chart that shows how this normal risk of death increases as you get older. E.g, the odds that an average 18-year-old American male will die within their next 1,000 life-hours is about 0.01%.  This happens to be exactly the same odds as traveling on a commercial airliner, once again illustrating how save commercial air travel has become. A 90-year-old male, by comparison, has a 1.9% chance of dying within their next 1,000 life hours.  You can see how the slope of the curve remains fairly flat until the age of 50, and how it really steepens around 75. If someone manages to survive until the age of 119, their odds of dying within the next 1,000 life-hours will have risen to 10.2%.

(The source of this information is the US Social Security Administration.  Note that they report the risk of dying within the next year, which I converted to the risk within the next 1,000 life hours, i.e. 41.7 days.  Note also that the risk level tends to be slightly lower for females since their life expectancy is higher, but for our purposes the gender differences are negligible.)

So how do the risks of the various activities compare relative to the normal day-to-day risk of dying at different ages?

To illustrate this, I placed the activity icons onto the same chart (see below).  Once again, you see that commercial air travel is the safest of these activities. Driving, skiing, cycling, back-country skiing, and marathon running are all along the relatively flat part of the curve.  The risk of dying per hour when swimming in open waters or while participating in equestrian eventing is about 0.3%, equivalent to the risk that an average 71 year-old person faces in their day-to-day life.

As you move right and up along the curve, the risk level increases much more noticeably. Scuba diving is about as dangerous as being 80 years old, and motorcycling corresponds to the normal risk of being 85.  Several air sports come next: general aviation, flying sailplanes, hang gliding, and paragliding.  Each of these is about as risky as the normal lives of people aged 88 to 95.  Downhill mountain biking also falls into this category.

As you continue further up the slope you can see two outliers: skydiving is about as dangerous as the normal life of a 107 year-old and climbing the Tetons is about as dangerous as being 119 yeas of age.

Three activities from the initial graphic above are still missing: Formula 1 racing, Climbing Mt. Everest, and Base Jumping.  The dangers of these three sports are so great they are literally off the chart because the Social Security Administration does not compute death risk statistics for anyone older than 119.  (You probably don’t know anyone of that age either.)  Since Formula 1 racing is about 2x as dangerous as Climbing the Tetons and Climbing Everest is another 2x as dangerous, you can roughly imagine how high up the risk curve you have to go.  With Base Jumping even that becomes impossible: it is more than 100x more dangerous than climbing Mt. Everest!

Why put all this information together?  I believe we should all be fully aware of the risks that we take, and that we should let our awareness of these risks be an incentive to take the appropriate preparations and precautions to reduce these risks as much as possible.  Most of the fatal accidents in sports are at least in part the result of human error and could have been avoided. If we close our eyes to the risks (as we are naturally inclined to do in order to remove this pesky thing called cognitive dissonance), we are also unlikely to do what it takes to keep the risks contained.

Commercial aviation is a great example that risk mitigation really works. After the invention of powered flight in 1903, flying was certainly one of the most dangerous things humans could possibly do. Gradually and over time, this risk has been reduced to such an extent that commercial air travel is now one of the safest things we participate in.

The concrete risks and the strategies for risk mitigation are obviously quite specific to each of the different activities and discussing them is beyond the scope of this article.  But risk mitigation strategies do exist for all activities and deploying them deliberately and consistently can be very effective (for some activities probably more so than for others).  If you do something that is objectively dangerous (and now you know that it is), learning about these strategies and taking them seriously can truly help you stay alive.

Have fun and be safe!

72 Replies to “The Risk of Dying Doing What We Love”

    1. I didn’t like to believe it either (remember we don’t want our sport to be unsafe) so I spent quite a bit on the data for both of these activities in particular. I’m fairly confident in accuracy of the sources. If you have better ones, I would be grateful if you could provide them.

      1. I think this is an extremely useful article. Although it is open to challenges it is the principal and purpose that provides the value. As a paraglider pilot and club safety officer I struggle with communicating the risks to pilots without sounding like a nanny. Your data provides a solid base for an individual to make a personal safety assessment. For example: your data considers accidents based on time (in my case) flying. In reality, the majority of PG accidents occur on launch and landing, I.E. in close proximity to the ground. Hence pilots who fly many short flights or spend their time ridge soaring are at higher risk (calculated as accidents/time) than those who prefer and are able to fly high and far. I suspect that many of the ridge soarers think they are in the safer category. My point is not that your data is less valid, just the opposite. PG pilots need to understand the variety of hazards and adjust their flying accordingly. I shall put a link to this article on our club web site. On a personal note, as a pilot in his seventies I look forward to the point where the age/risk graphs intersect and I can relax in the knowledge that my flying is no more risky than waking up in the morning

        1. Chris – thanks for your comments! It won’t surprise you that it the same for soaring, i.e. the majority of accidents happen when flying in close proximity to the ground, i.e. during takeoff, landing, or in mountainous terrain / along ridges.

    2. The error is in Choosing just some countries… It’s not an honest comparison, you should compare globally for all sports. While glider flying in the mountains is much more risk full then glider flying in flat lands like the netherlands.

      1. Zendesigner – I agree it would be best to have global data but they are just not available. I’m pretty sure you are right that flat land flying is safer than mountain soaring, and therefore the risk in the Netherlands is likely to be lower than average. However, I think that Germany and France are quite representative for soaring overall. First, the two countries combined represent about 1\3 of all soaring globally, and second, both countries have a good mix of mountain and flatland flying.

          1. Thanks Amanda. Yes, the majority of German soaring is in flat land areas. With respect to the risks, stats are only that: stats. Glider pilots have a lot of control over the level of risk they are prepared to take on. I don’t have data to show it but I have seen no indication that aerobatics is more dangerous as long as pilots take the necessary precautions, don’t get complacent, and keep good safety margins at all time. Aerobatic pilots are on average probably more skilled than others. Complacency would likely be their biggest threat.

        1. I think that another important variable, and something that is found on most general surveys, is level of education. I’m not really sure how well pilots are trained in other parts of the world; i.e. product of a training mill? Subject to group biases due to bigger overall population of pilots in one place, giving false security to new pilots? SIV training attendance? These are just a few variables that should decrease risk. The overall point is well taken, and should prompt all of us to improve our safety standards. As a commercial instrument pilot, instructor, and tandem instructor, I often use ADM mitigation. This is free from the FAA and found in a google search as PDF under private pilot handbook. I recommend that everyone read that chapter.

          1. Troy – I can only speak for flying sailplanes, and yes, there are big differences in training – from country to country, and also from airfield to airfield. However, I don’t know if there is enough data to find a correlation (let alone causation) between training and likelihood of accidents – anecdotal evidence might be all we have. I like the ADM framework. In addition, there is a lot we can learn from accident reports to help us become safer pilots. Based on my research, most glider accidents tend to be the cause of a) mistakes in airmanship, b) wrong decision making, or c) poor/negligent preparation. All of these require self-awareness of one’s limitations and propensity to get one self into trouble. Training can help with all three. Thanks for your comment!

      2. I agree. After 55 years of Mountain soaring, mainly in the Austrian alps, I wrote the book “Faszination Gebirgssegelflug “, Motorbuchverlag. There you can read my opininion about the dangers of mountain soaring.

      3. I also suspect the same as you. I agree that I would believe glidning in min mountainous Terrain to be safer than driving a motorcycle.
        A more detailed analysis might show A difference in statistics between Germany and France, as for Flying in the alps only France Austria and italy might show this.
        An issue might be competition flying that might show up in the statistics for Germany.

    3. I’d like to know whether the statistic is for riding motorcycles on the road, or racing them too. We know quite a few gliding accidents are during competitions, it would be interesting to see the comparison of non-competitive gliding against motorcycle touring, and gliding competitions against accidents in the track

      1. I’m pretty sure the source stats exclude motorcycle racing. And yes, they include glider contest flying. I’d also be interested seeing if there would be a difference if you would separate out glider racing. You would have to look at each glider fatality in Germany and France for the past 15 years and identify if a fatality occurred during a contest, provided that this is noted in the accident report (which it may or may not be). You would also have to make an estimate what percentage of gliding is done at contests. I’m not sure if you could really get to reliable data but you can try. I’d be curious what you find.

    4. Nice article. I am paragliding pilot and you have to consider the fact about most accidents in the sports are caused of pilot errors due to hes lack of training and capability of taking high amounts of G-forces.
      Every single accident I have looked at are cause of this reason.
      Paragliding is high demanding both mentally and physically.
      If you take out these rookies you will see among us professional pilots there are almost no fatal accidents.

      Best regards and fly safe

      1. Hi Björn. Interesting. I have not looked at the reasons for paragliding accidents specifically and can’t comment on that. Most (but not all) sailplane accidents are avoidable but a lot of accidents have involved very experienced pilots including multiple world champions. I’m a bit surprised that this is not true for paragliding but I don’t have data to claim otherwise.

      2. I’m afraid Björn you are not looking hard enough: I know personally paraglider pilots that have died paragliding with 10s of hours, 100s of hours and 1000s of hours. This is exactly what Clemens is pointing out, that you need to be aware of the risks and not become complacent with thinking such things as “I am a very experienced professional pilot so won’t have an accident and die”. With 2000hrs airtime on paragliders (over 20 years) at 2.9% chance of dying per 1000hrs I hope to keep my mind focused enough to surveive another 5000, and fly on my 100th birthday. Or at least as Chris Field wrote (which is brilliant), at least to the age where flying is no more risky than waking up in the morning!

      1. Thanks! Very detailed data on boating accidents. The one thing I didn’t see (but would need) is the total number of boating hours per year for the same area that the study covers, i.e., the entire US. There is detailed data on fatalities and also on how many registered vessels there, are but I don’t have a good sense how many hours on average a registered vessel is used in any year. (Some are used a lot, some not at all, I really can’t make a good guess.) I’d also need to know the average number of people in a boat.

    5. Since 2009 I’ve fallen 3 times on my motorcycle.
      Since 2007 I just had a sore heel from a hard landing while paragliding.
      The conclusion from the above is none.

      I think the risk of me having an accident is related to the tendency to take risk from all others around. Also, relates to my ability to maneuver, to practice safe strategies and to keep the reflexes current.

      I feel safer while paragliding because I can better control my environment. I can relate the weather conditions, I determine my ability to handle them, I determine how many are flying, who are they and their ability to comply to the rules and keep safe distances.
      On the road, I cannot predict who’s on the road with me, if there’s any slippery surface in the corner or other unpredictables.

      Therefore, the risk calculation in this article is at best an honest attempt to average all the people who practice these activities. It tries to average all spectre of people, since the careful and calculist to the unprepared and/or prone to risk taking impacient person.

      1. Hi Zak – thank you for sharing your thoughts! Yes, you are absolutely right that I only reported data and that the data reflect the results of everyone participating in these activities, i.e. the more skilled and the less skilled, the more careful and the less careful. It is also totally normal to feel safer in environments where you have the sense of having greater control. E.g., many people feel much safer driving their car (where they have a significant amount of control) than they feel when boarding a commercial flight (where they truly have no control at all). Feelings can be deceiving. That said, you are absolutely right that in paragliding you have a lot of ability to reduce your level of risk – you even listed several important ones. The majority of flying accidents are avoidable and if you continue to be diligent and work on your skills you can definitely make your personal odds much better than the average.

  1. I like the attempt at a fresh metric for comparing risk, and your analysis seems fairly rigorous, although I don’t think you do justice to how loose that estimate is for base jumping deaths… It’s pretty much a WAG, which includes data from the start of the sport, prior to many modern advances in parachute and wingsuit technology. This is not to say that there’s any hard evidence that these things have made the sport safer, in only pointing out that the number you picked is a complete WAG since noone has good data, and what data is available is typically limited to single exit points and I don’t think it’s possible to draw many fair and accurate conclusions from it. Also, you use a wingsuit graphic to represent base jumping in general, which I find misleading, because wingsuit base appears to be even more dangerous than non wingsuit base, and they are quite different activities, but I think anyone trying to pin an accurate number on the risks of these sports without a well funded, comprehensive study creating entirely new data sets with much better reliability is not going to be very productive.

    1. Hi Josh, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I totally agree that Base Jumping stats were some of the hardest to come by and I realize the data is weak. And I appreciate the difference between with/without wing suit. Also, I had to make a guess as to the average duration of the jump. There are a lot of variables and the risk could be somewhat lower or even higher. Other activities are also very dangerous but have no data. E.g., extreme skiing/snowboarding or free climbing might get up there with Base Jumping but unsurprisingly there are no good data available for either of these either. Thanks again!

  2. I like the attempt at a fresh metric for comparing risk, and your analysis seems fairly rigorous, although I don’t think you do justice to how loose that estimate is for base jumping deaths… It’s pretty much a WAG, which includes data from the start of the sport, prior to many modern advances in parachute and wingsuit technology. This is not to say that there’s any hard evidence that these things have made the sport safer, I’m only pointing out that the number you picked is a complete WAG (as noted in the website you sourced it from…) since noone has good data, and what data is available is typically limited to single exit points and I don’t think it’s possible to draw many fair and accurate conclusions from it. Also, you use a wingsuit graphic to represent base jumping in general, which I find misleading, because wingsuit base appears to be even more dangerous than non wingsuit base, and they are quite different activities, but I think anyone trying to pin an accurate number on the risks of these sports without a well funded, comprehensive study creating entirely new data sets with much better reliability is not going to be very productive. Either way, it’s still probably top of the list, but I look forward to the day where we can get FAA quality stats on it, and really start to improve the safety of it.

  3. Any way to break out paragliding into regular and speed/mini wings? Speed flying appears to be *way* riskier, so it would be great to know the split!

  4. Interesting comprehensive analysis. I think the Formula 1 could be revisited seeing as the stats date back to 1950’s where safety was non existent. Massive changes in safety since Senna’s death in 1992. If memory serves me correct there has only been 1 death since then.

    1. Luke – yes, you are right, the risk in Formula 1 racing was even much higher in the early days and it has significantly decreased over the last decades, such that the average most likely overstates the current risk.

  5. Good point and well put.

    All of which makes me happy I survived 50+ years of flying powered aircraft and 40+ years of flying saillanes. The first 10 years of driving was probably riskier than all the flying combined, however, neural pathways that support self-preervation being under developed and all.

    Your exposé makes me even more delighted that Condor 2 Soaring Simulator and Microsoft Flight Simulator are available.

  6. Good point and well put.

    All of which makes me happy I survived 50+ years of flying powered aircraft and 40+ years of flying saillanes. The first 10 years of driving was probably riskier than all the flying combined, however, neural pathways that support self-preservation being under-developed and all.

    Your exposé makes me even more delighted that Condor 2 Soaring Simulator and Microsoft Flight Simulator are available.

  7. This is a very misleading statistic on gliding because. (for example)

    You would normally ride a motorcycle for three or four hours. Then do something else.

    Where as you would turn up to a gliding site rig your glider, help around launch point, fly (for an average of an hour) then spend the rest of the day helping out and de rigging your glider.

    In this case the motorcyclist would have had 3 hours of biking and the glider pilot 1 hour. Probably exposed themselves to the same danger. However if you calculate the risk as the glider pilot had a whole day at the gliding club his risk per hour would be much much less than the biker (per hour).

    The same can be said for power pilots who tend not to spend all day at the airfield.

    1. Ben – I don’t ride motorcycles and don’t want to make assumptions about how long a typical ride is. I picked participation per hour so everyone can apply the data for themselves. Hope this helps.

  8. Can you explain how you arrived at the SCUBA number?
    The referenced Wiki article says “1.8 fatalities per million recreational dives” for the US reference population.
    Conservatively estimating average diving to be 30 minutes (In my own experience it’s closer to 45), that’s 3.6 Fatalities per million hours, or 1 death every 280,000 hours, not every 120,000 hours.

  9. I wonder when the most dangerous period of my hanggliding was/is. Before, when I flew every possible opportunity and competed and only stayed on the ground when I was really forced to – so when I was young, fit and current but flying in all kinds of conditions. Or now, that I’m physically not fit enough to fly much and only occasionally grab the opportunity, fly like an old lady (which I am), don’t fly anywhere just launch, make a few passes than land – so I’m not doing any kind of risky flying but I’m also not very fit or current. I find myself misjudging how well I am able to launch sometimes, forgetting that I no longer launch everywhere all the time.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing this – great stuff!!

    I wonder if it would be interesting to normalize risk on number of events (flights) rather than hours, since the prime danger of paragliding, for example, is during launch and landing. This probably also better handles the risk analysis of base-jumping.

    While longer flights are usually possible because of thermic conditions and therefore may contain the increased risk of being in those conditions for longer time, the added altitude of the flight portions between launching and landing probably mitigate much of that risk by providing time to recover. Furthermore, non-recoverable incidents at altitude likely result in a reserve toss which reduces the likelihood of death if not injury. For those reasons, the risk of paragliding is heavily biased to the start and end of a flight and therefore do not escalate significantly with time in the air.

    Contrast this to motorcycle riding, for example, where the risk is evenly distributed throughout the ride and therefore directly proportional to time on the bike.

    So activities like paragliding, base-jumping, sky-diving, etc. are better normalized by activity count while activities like scuba, motorcycling, mountain biking, etc, are best normalized by hour count.

    Just my $.02 – but a wonderful article – thanks for putting it out there!!

    1. Dave, thanks for your comments. Yes, for some activities “per event” might be a better measure. All methodologies have pros and minuses. I explained why I used activity hour as the one that I felt most appropriate for me. That does not make other methods worse or less valid.

  11. Josh – here is the basis for the estimate that I used for scuba diving: “fatality rate per dive is a better measure of exposure risk, A mean annual fatality rate of 0.48 deaths per 100,000 student dives per year and 0.54 deaths per 100,000 BSAC dives per year and 1.03 deaths per 100,000 non-BSAC dives per year during 2007.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scuba_diving_fatalities. I estimated the length of an average dive at between 40-50 minutes (based on an informal survey on a scuba blog – source: https://www.scubaboard.com/community/threads/how-long-is-a-dive.12889/). I arrived at an expected death rate in the range of once per 64,725-173,611 hours and took the average between the two, rounded to 120,000. I don’t know much about scuba diving and have never done it myself. If you have data that is more reliable, please let me know. As with all the data, many of the sources have big ranges so take the data as directional only, they are not accurate in a scientific sense.

  12. After further thought:

    One very unscientific measure of the risk of flying comes from 16 years of operating a “flightseeing” business using two 1920s biplanes, two WW2 aircraft, and two little tandem-seat single-engine birds we used for mock-dogfights. During that period we never scratched a soul, but 17 people no-showed for flights that we later learned were the result of a car accident or incident. Presumably and an unknown, arguably equal, number of people had problems driving home.

    On the subject of estimating risk, I must recommend Stephen J, Gould’s “The Median Isn’t the Message.” https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/median-isnt-message/2013-01

    1. Tom – thanks for sharing that article! There’s a good point there: the variation in soaring fatalities is practically infinite, some die on their first flight and most die never during soaring at all. As pilots, we all want to beat the odds, just like the person who wrote the article did. I think knowledge of the stats can help to take the risks seriously. That’s the main reason for publishing them. Most soaring deaths can be avoided, not so much by being optimistic that nothing will happen, but by being mindful of the risks that exist and making decisions that minimize getting into situations where the risk becomes unmanageable. Your business might be a great example of managing these risks well. Congrats on operating is safely for so many years!

      1. “Most soaring deaths can be avoided…by being mindful of the risks that exist and making decisions that minimize getting into situations where the risk becomes unmanageable….”

        Absolutely, risk management is, after all, the point.

        But you can’t fix stupid. And I just proved that minutes ago in an online Condor 2 soaring race. Did everything right in a lovely Diana 2 and was at the top of the list against 54 other pilots right up until 0.02 miles from the finish line.

        The mark was on a steep downwind hillside and my final glide computer and precise flying put me right at zero feet when I arrived.

        “Huge sink and trees, be damned, I can make this finish,” says I.

        But reality bites. I didn’t stall and I didn’t spin, but I sure as hell flew into the trees literally feet from the finish line.

        Until this second, while writing this, it never occurred to me that there was no reason to pass the mark to starboard on the uphill side, when the line was hundreds of feet wide and extended away from the mountain at least 300 meters above the valley floor. A last-second dolphin oop-dee-doo finish, well away from the mountain, would have been easy. Years of sailboat racing is the only excuse I can conjure.

        Nope, you can’t fix stupid.

  13. Great work. A refreshing take. Thanks for trying to normalize the data for comparison. It always bugged me how risk data has been presented in the past. This is a big upgrade.

  14. Very nice article. I rock climb and fly gliders. Was there a reason for only picking climbing in the Tetons? I’m assuming no good data? I’d be curious as to the comparison of rock climbing overall and flying gliders.

      1. Hmmm. The American Alpine Club might have some. Of course, similarly to the potential differences in mountain vs flatland soaring mentioned above, there would be differences between bouldering, sport and trad rock climbing. I’ll let you know if I find some data. Thanks for the quick reply.

  15. Great article and refreshing to see an analysis done by someone with at least a basic understanding of statistics (unlike most journalists). But I wonder how good the data is. I, for example, hang glide and scuba dive, but I don’t report how many hours I do these activities, so while I’m sure my death while undertaking these activities would be recorded somewhere, how would they know how many hours I had anticipated in the activity? And even if that were investigated, that only records how often people who die flew or dove before dying, whereas there may be many who dive (or fly) thousands of hours, but don’t die from it, and their successful avoidance of killing themselves is never reflected in the statistics because it’s never recorded. Finally, I’m sure the per hour danger of a (probably new) hang glider pilot who flies only a few hours a year is much higher than the per hour danger of a (necessarily, more experienced) hang glider pilot flying, say, 100 hours per year. Nevertheless, the analysis made the most of the data we have and I found it very informative.

    1. Edward – thanks for your comments. You are absolutely right that good quality stats about many of the activities are difficult to find and that the information is directional and cannot be considered accurate. I noted that in the article and on the chart as well. For paragliding I used data from Germany about the number of pilots and then I searched for surveys of pilots to estimate the average flight hours per year per pilot. The numbers are obviously just directional. For hang gliding, the UK government published a datapoint for fatalities per flight although I don’t know how they determined that. I then estimated an average duration per flight. For scuba diving I found data that estimated the fatality rate per number of dives and estimated an average duration of a dive once again by looking at surveys in the scuba diving community. It’s the best I could find and I think at least the order of magnitude will be right for most activities. Ideally I would have quoted range estimates or provided a standard deviation / error range. If anyone has better data, I’d like to know. For soaring (flying sailplanes), which I was most interested in personally, I was lucky to find reasonably good data for France and for Germany, which together account for about 1/3 of all glider flights globally and which I consider quite representative overall. – Hope this helps.

  16. I’d love to see the climbing broken down. Mountaineering is very different from sport and Trad climbing. You can do all 3 in the Tetons. There’s a famous route up the Grand Teton that people do without ropes. Is that it? Or is it Trad multipitch with ropes and gear? I doubt there are many deaths from sport climbing but I’m curious

    1. Sean – I don’t know enough about the various types of rock climbing. I found a study that was specific to the Tetons that looked to me fairly well researched and that’s what I based the number on. You can find the source quoted at the bottom of the chart.

  17. This is probably the best analysis of this type I’ve seen. One assumption that I disagree with is skydiving. The assumption you cite is 5-7min per skydive. While this is true that the free fall and canopy portion of the skydive is only about 5min, the skydiver will then spend about 20min packing their parachute and 20min riding back up in the airplane before being able to make another jump. And that’s assuming the manifest is moving quick enough to get them on a plane as soon as they are ready without further waiting. On a good day, skydivers make about 1 jump per hour and will do 3-5 jumps per day of jumping. Whereas say a paraglider pilot might have to hike up to launch, but will then fly for the average 20min continuously which is equivalent action time to doing 4 skydives. I would argue that the data shows paragliding is significantly more dangerous than skydiving (I am active in both sports and actually prefer paragliding). Similar issues may exist with other sports as well.

    That said I think it is missing one more piece to bring it more apples to apples. I like how you show the data on the “per usage hour” denominator basis. This allows each person to customize their own risk assessments based on the number of hours that they personally would spend participating in the sports. However, stopping the analysis there leads to misleading conclusions because the average usage hours of each sport can vary substantially. I think it would be prudent to take an estimate of the total usage hours that the average recreational participant has in each sport per year. Then normalize the numbers based on the odds of dying per year in the sport. The existing work you have published is still critical because it allows people to adjust the numbers based on how many hours they will actually spend per year on each sport. But let’s be honest, most people won’t read anything and jump to the money chart to draw conclusions. The conclusions will be misleading because the usage hours per year differ dramatically between the sports. I think it would be useful to have an additional final chart that does some sort of normalization based on usage hours per year.

    This would also help normalize BASE a bit more since it is very difficult to crank out multiple BASE jumps in a short time period and most jumpers don’t try to unless at an event such as Bridge Day or KL Tower. Sadly, even normalized in this way I’m sure the data would still show the risk level of the sport being insane.

    1. Rob – thanks for commenting. I’ve explained in the article why I picked the methodology I used. There are definitely also other valid ways to look at the data. They all would tell you something different. They are not better or worse per se, just different. It really depends what you want to know.

  18. Very interesting article! As a paraglider pilot it is valuable to see this in as black and white as this even if there are endless things that complicates the comparison. Using time as a key metric I wonder how you define where it starts and stop. For sky diving I’m guessing you don’t only count the handful of minutes the jump takes but also the time the activities that surrounds the jump takes (packing, waiting, flying etc.). Where do you draw the boundaries?

    1. Jens – In general, I tried to count only the time from jump until landing, not the preparation surrounding it (because it is not dangerous per se, and as you rightly suggest, drawing a line somewhere else would be totally arbitrary. If you look at the bottom of the chart you can see the sources and assumptions (I.e. estimates) that I used.

  19. Very nice. I did a similar thing back when I got my motorcycle license, and it yielded some interesting results, too: SCUBA diving and horseback riding are both more dangerous than riding a motorcycle per activity hour, contrary to what seems like common perception. Also interesting to note is that in 26% of US motorcycle fatalities, the rider wasn’t even licensed; in 28% alcohol was involved. It’s a bit harder to hop into a glider sauced or unlicensed!! These nuances make a big difference in thinking about the relative risks of activities.

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/drf6z5j0xj726fh/Motorcycles%20%26%20Risk.pdf?dl=0

    The thing is, this stuff is all dangerous. There is always some risk. People like to think there isn’t, but there always is. I’ve seen a pedestrian hit by a bus, one of the most violent things I’ve seen. Who knew wearing a hoodie (and limiting your peripheral vision) while you cross the street was dangerous!?

    Another thought, for the benefit of people like us attracted to the exciting things in life: it is really difficult to come to an accurate conclusion *in the moment* just how much danger you are in. That’s the scary thing with a lot of this stuff. But if you adopt a humble, patient attitude of playing it safe, you will not only eventually accumulate a wise knowledge base and an impressive skillset, but you will also still be alive. In EACH of my three near-fatal accidents (jetski, paragliding, motorcycle), I convinced myself I was being responsible at the time. In hindsight I was obviously being a fool, and in each of the cases I held the attitude of “push it!! how else can I improve!? how else can I achieve!!?” Don’t. Be patient. Keep calm, keep humble. In those moments of terror as an accident is unfolding, your supposedly compelling reasons for doing whatever stupid thing you were doing will evaporate into absolute worthlessness.

    1. Hi Mark, thank you very much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking reply. There’s a lot of wisdom in there. Thanks also for sharing your prior research. I was sure I wasn’t the only one who had that idea – I just could not find anything. I can tell you did a lot of work on this and I hope it has helped you make smart decisions. Thanks again!!

  20. Would it be possible to more general stats for climbing rather than extreme mountains? Perhaps you could use starts for sport climbing (bolted) ? I imagine it’s not easy which is why you went for the Tetons and Everest but these are very very extreme singular locations from the climbing world…

    1. Matthew – thanks for your interest. It might be possible but I don’t have the data to do so. And yes, I used the Tetons and Everest because there are reasonably good data available.

  21. If you exclude ridge soaring ,collision and alpine flying then gliding risk should be calculated per flight not per hour; likewise for other
    flying sports. If you put UK gliding into the mix, things will look much better; in the last two years , as reported in the S and G
    magazine there have been NO fatalities and vary few serious
    accidents. In 4500 hrs gliding (60 years) I have only had
    two near collisions and three landing accidents (two force majeure, outside my control)
    John F ( five international contests.)

    1. Hi John – risk by flight is definitely another valid metric, it just measures something different and makes it more difficult to compare flying to other activities. Every methodology has pluses and minuses. I do not know why I would want to exclude ridge soaring, collision risks, and alpine/mountain flying though. These are part of the risks of the sport. I’m glad your near misses were just that and that you’re here to tell the story. I’m also glad that there were no fatal accidents in the UK in the last two years, let’s hope it stays this way. All the best!

  22. Intuitively I still believe that driving home is more dangerous that climbing or paragliding because we are tired after a long day. As a scientist I like your methodology. Most practical decisions require sound judgment based on a mix of statistical numbers and assessment of a specific situation including objective and subjective factors. It would be great if you could help to come up with simple rules for our sport to help to assess a situation similar to the methods developed for avalanche risk assessment.

  23. Thanks Clemens for a great article. Risk analysis is a passion both in my personal life (paragliding, drinking..living) and professional life (financial risk analysis academic). Your article and all the comments that flowed shows that risk (in your definition the risk of death) as certainly a slippery variable to measure and interpret. Throw into the mix individual decisions, skills and psychological biases all which can dramatically alter probabilities and perception of probabilities of death (and injury). I have had risk averse paragliding friends die of cancer while risk seeking ones continually survive (up to now anyway), drinking, smoking and doing crazy shit. Its a funny world. I guess we gotta just make the best decisions we can and live life to the fullest. Again thanks for a great article and thanks to all the others who have made comments. Its certainly a great topic of discussion. There is no absolute right answer to the question what is riskier…the only thing that isn’t risky is death itself…although the way genetic engineering is going it may be that death itself isn’t 100% certain anymore…

    1. Hi Barry – thanks for your thoughtful comments! Yes, there’s no doubt that some of the most risk averse people will die anyway and some of the biggest risk seekers will live a very long life. As you know very well, stats can never predict what will happen to any one individual, especially on something that has a binary outcome (you’re either 100% alive or you’re 100% dead). I’m convinced that – all other things equal – risk seekers have a higher probability of dying before any given age than risk averse people. But of course this doesn’t mean that one is necessarily happier than the other. Discussing the relationship between risk-seeking/risk-aversion and happiness or “living life to the fullest” was beyond my intent with this article and quickly gets into the realm of ethics and philosophy. These questions are worth pondering but as you say they do not have a right or wrong answer. So: have fun and stay safe! 😉

  24. I’m curious what the fatality rate is for cross-country (i.e. non-downhill) mountain biking. On one hand it could be lower than that of general cycling since unlike cycling on the road, mountain bikers don’t have to contend with cars and other large, fast-moving vehicles. On the other hand, even non-downhill mountain biking involves uneven terrain the occasional accidents — so perhaps the risk of cross-country mountain biking is somewhere in the middle of general cycling and downhill mountain biking?

    I searched for fatality statistics on non-downhill mountain biking and couldn’t find any. Let me know if you know of a good source.

    Thanks for the article, great perspective!

    1. Typo — “uneven terrain the occasional accidents” should read “uneven terrain and the occasional accident.” 🙂

    2. Hi Brennan – I was looking for stats on XC mountain biking as well and could not find anything either. My sense is that the injury rate is likely to be fairly high but the fatality rate not so much because the speeds are much lower than in downhill MTB. But as I said I have no data to show that. I did some XC MTB racing a decade ago and have had some crashes and injuries – mostly by clipping trees when going too closely around tight corners.

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