Let's make going to a national park as safe as flying Billions are spent annually to make air travel safer, but only a few million are allocated to improve safety in the national parks.


AFTER MY 9-year-old son Andy died in a preventable accident at Yellowstone National Park, Congress sent a clear message to the National Park Service to improve safety. As a result, hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries were avoided.

But that was many years ago. After years of improved safety performance, the rate of fatal accidents has been inching up over the past decade. Last year, 179 visitors to national parks were killed in accidents -- 0.65 deaths per 1 million visitors, the highest rate since 1980.

Park problems

Today, a visit to a national park is twice as likely to result in a fatal accident as an airline trip. In the past 15 years, visitor fatalities in the national parks have been about the same as deaths from all commercial aviation accidents -- about 150 per year. Also, about 1,000 people are seriously injured in the parks each year, far more than in airline accidents.

Flying should be more dangerous. Billions are spent annually to make air travel safer, but only a few million dollars are allocated to improve safety in the national parks. This is not nearly enough to make visitor safety a foremost concern of the 20,000 Park Service employees and to provide them with the knowledge they need. Yet the way a Park Service employee responds to a visitor can be a matter of life or death.

The best way to get Park Service personnel to give safety the priority the public expects is for Congress to send that message by increasing funding for safety. That is what happened after my son, Andy, tripped on a boardwalk at Yellowstone on June 28, 1970, and his momentum carried him into a thermal pool, scalding him to death.

At first it appeared that Andy's death would be ignored like hundreds of others that had occurred. In the preceding decade, fatal accidents in the national parks had increased almost five-fold. The accident rate had increased from 0.6 to 1.1 per million visits because more visitors were coming from urban areas, facing unknown dangers.

At the time of Andy's death, I had worked for 16 years for DuPont Corp. where, because safety was always the top priority, lost-time work accidents were only one-tenth that of the average for all chemical companies. Consequently, there was no doubt in my mind that Andy would not have been killed if the Park Service had had a decent safety program.

Fortunately, my wife and I had the contacts to organize a media campaign calling for safer parks and a letter-writing campaign to Congress demanding more funding for park safety. In the wake of these campaigns, Congress doubled the Park Service's request for a funding increase for more safety officers.

The message was clear and, in just three years, the rate of fatal accidents decreased by 35 percent to 0.71. Moreover, the downward trend continued to less than 0.4. Between 1983 and (( 1991, the rate always was less than 0.50.

Even an excellent safety program cannot prevent some accidents. Most accidental deaths at Denali and Mount Rainier, two parks where the accident rate far exceeds the average, occur high on the mountains for which the parks are named. However, less than 10 percent of all national park fatalities result from high-risk recreational activities such as mountain climbing.

Drug-related accidents

About 10 percent of national park fatalities involve alcohol and drugs. Substance abuse is a factor in about one-half of boating accidents at Lake Mead in Nevada, the national park with the highest number of fatalities.

Other parks where accidental deaths are well above average include Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Grand Teton. These parks have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, but they also contain dangers unfamiliar to visitors.

A careful investigation of such accidents usually indicates that they could have been prevented. After Andy was killed, I learned that he was the ninth thermal pool fatality at Yellowstone -- many others had been seriously injured in such pools. A verbal warning, a warning sign, a rail around the deadly pool or a better designed boardwalk -- any of these would have saved Andy's life. Eventually, all of these were added.

The worst killer in Yellowstone Park is Yellowstone Lake, where survival time in the cold water is only about 5 minutes in the summer months. In one of many tragedies on this lake, two Boy Scouts and their two adult leaders died in 1973 when their canoes capsized in a storm that struck suddenly. While the ranger who normally issued boating permits stressed the danger posed by the cold water, this group had the misfortune to receive its permit from another ranger who did not provide the warning.

Saving lives

While we can identify by name people who have died as a result of accidents in the parks, there are countless others who are alive today because of precautions taken by the Park Service. At North Cascades National Park in Washington, a mountain-climbing safety program gradually reduced the number of fatal accidents from 1 per 600 climbs in 1978-80 to 1 per 11,400 climbs during 1987-90. Since during this period the number of climbers there increased four-fold to about 5,700 a year, the safety program prevented about nine fatal accidents annually.

Preventing accidents costs money. For airline safety, the Department of Transportation has established the guideline that is worth spending $2.7 million to save a life. Having experienced the death of a child, I consider that low, but even this amount makes the case for increased spending for park safety overwhelming.

If Congress added $2.7 million to the Park Services safety budget for better training in accident prevention and more ranger contact with visitors, that would reduce fatal accidents and be a first step toward making it as safe to visit a national park as taking an airplane flight.

James L. Hecht is a senior fellow at the Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues at the University of Denver.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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