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June 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 34, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What’s Your Real Risk of a Diving Death?

the ratios versus the reality of “what happens if . . .”

from the June, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

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The risk of a fatality in diving has been stated as:

* 16.4:100,000 divers (Diver Alert Network's figures)

* 14.4:100,000 divers (British Sub-Aqua Club's figures)

* 0.54:100,000 dives (BSAC member dives)

* 1.03:100,000 dives (non-BSAC member dives)

But what do those statistics actually mean? I can tell you they mean nothing to most people -- we don't deal with risk in the real world like that. Numbers don't have the same emotional relevance as stories about dive deaths, so they don't stay in our heads that long. Furthermore, most decisions are informed by emotion, not logic. So let's use a visual example of the apparent irrationality of perceived risk in scuba diving.

A colleague of mine did a "Discover Scuba Diving"-type dive while on a Caribbean cruise. Her only diving experience prior to getting into the ocean was in the pool of the cruise liner she was on. Her first dive was to 100 feet on a deep wall advertised as a shark dive. The biggest concern for her and the other divers wasn't the very deep water they were over, it was the sharks they had gone down to see. She remembers getting down to 100 feet and swimming around, completely oblivious to her gas consumption, depth or decompression obligations that might come up. It took the guide several goes at grabbing her attention and getting her to ascend, as she was getting very low on gas. If the guide hadn't done that, she would likely have completely run out of gas because she was so enthralled by where she was. She had gone on the dive because she knew the operators wouldn't have put her into a dangerous situation with the sharks, so she completely trusted them to make sure the diving was safe and didn't think about that risk.

Probabilities Are Irrelevant

Ironically, the risk of dying from a shark attack is phenomenally small, with only five to 15 fatalities per year. But the statistical risk of dying during a diving trip is much higher. However, in both cases (shark or diving), these risk numbers are meaningless because the outcome ends up as either 1 or 0, and you only find out after the event. You cannot be a fraction of dead. That might appear a rather obvious thing to say, but consider the normal risk equation people use....

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