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Is Scuba Diving Safe or Dangerous?

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A scuba diver looks at a yellow sea star.

Scuba divers can safely explore the underwater world with the proper preparation and attitude.

istockphoto.com, Rainervonbrandis
Is scuba diving dangerous? As with any adventure sport, some risk is involved. Humans are not built to breathe underwater, which means that every time a diver descends, he is completely dependent upon his equipment, skills, and emergency training to ensure that he surfaces safely. This truth, while it may sound frightening, should not discourage prospective divers. However, it should encourage divers to approach the sport with an appropriate amount of respect. Scuba diving is not dangerous as long as a diver seeks thorough training, follows safe diving guidelines, uses proper gear, and dives within his experience level.

How Likely Are You to Die Scuba Diving?:

Let's cut to the chase and answer the biggest, scariest question first: How likely are you to die scuba diving? According to the "Diver's Alert Network (DAN) 2010 Diving Fatalities Workshop Report", a diving fatality occurs in 1 out of every 211,864 dives. Whether this seems risky to you or not is a matter of personal opinion, but let's put this number in perspective by looking at the fatality rates of some other activities.

The Risks of Scuba Diving in Comparison With Other Activities:

1 out of every 211,864 dives ending in a fatality does not seem so great a number when compared with the fatality rates of other activities. For example:
• 1 out of every 5,555 of registered drivers in the US died in car accidents in 2008 (www.cenus.gov).
• 1 out of every 7692 pregnant women died from pregnancy complications in 2004 (National Center for Health Statistics).
• 1 out of every 116,666 skydives ended in a fatality in 2000 (United States Parachuting Association).
• 1 out of every 126,626 marathon runners died of sudden cardiac arrest while running a marathon between 1975-2003 (National Safety Council)
Statistically, diving is safer than driving, having a kid, skydiving, or running a marathon. Of course, this is a generalization. All the dates are from different years, and I am writing about diving fatalities, not injuries. My goal is simply to lend some perspective to the diving statistic. When we consider why divers die, we discover that for a responsible diver who seeks training and dives within his limits, the risks of diving are even lower.

What Are the Most Common Factors Contributing to Diver Fatalities?:

The top three root causes leading to diver fatalities (DAN Diving Fatalities Workshop Report) are:

1. Pre-existing disease or pathology in the diver
2. Poor buoyancy control
3. Rapid ascent/ violent water movement
All three of these are completely avoidable. In fact, if a diver respects the safe diving practices taught during scuba diver training, none of these factors should be a problem. For example:

Before beginning dive training, prospective scuba divers are given a scuba diving medical questionnaire, which, if answered truthfully, should bring up any medical problems that could predispose a diver to injury or death, such as lung diseases or heart issues. Of course, some divers do lie on these medical release forms and ignore the warning not to dive with contraindicated conditions. Furthermore, a diver may develop a medical condition that is contraindicated for diving after certification. Review the scuba diving medical questionnaire periodically and take it seriously, even after becoming a certified diver.

Poor buoyancy control is an issue with many divers. Who to blame for this issue is debatable - the divers who have poor buoyancy control or the instructors who certified them. In either case plenty of certified divers no longer (or never did) understand how a buoyancy compensator (BC) works or how pressure changes on descent and ascent affect buoyancy. If this subject is unclear, or if a diver simply hasn't developed the physical ability to control his buoyancy properly, he needs practice and a scuba diving refresher course before attempting to dive again.

Learm more about risks of diving and how to minimize them:
Ear Barotrauma
Decompression Sickness
Pulmonary Barotrauma

Rapid ascents are frequently due to poor buoyancy control. In some cases, divers simply panic and rocket to the surface. This is simply unacceptable. If water in a diver's mask makes him panic, he should practice flooding and clearing his mask in a pool until it becomes routine. If a buddy constantly strays so far that he is impossible to alert in an out-of-air emergency, get a new buddy. A diver who checks his pressure gauge and surfaces with a reasonable reserve of air in his tank is unlikely to run out of air. If the water is so rough that water movement is going to be an issue, don't dive or end a dive the moment the difficult current/surge/chop is experienced.

DAN's report goes on to explain that some of the leading contributing factors to diver fatalities are buddy separation and inadequate training for the dive being attempted. Both of these are violations of the standard safe diving guidelines.

The Take Home Message About Scuba Diving Risks:

Is scuba diving dangerous? It all depends upon a diver's attitude. Divers who treat their scuba training as a "do it once and be done" course and fail to review dive theory and practice basic scuba skills after periods of diving inactivity (and I mean after a short period of diving in activity, such as 6 months) are more at risk of a diving injury that divers who keep their skills current. Similarly, divers who embark on dives that are beyond the parameters of their training level are also at a higher risk than divers who take their training limitations seriously. For example, most open water certifications qualify a diver to go down to 60 feet, no deeper. If a diver wants to go deeper, there are courses for that -- he should take one! For divers who approach diving with an attitude of respect and conservatism, the risks of diving are minimal.
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