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  1. Opinion

Column: Forget bears. Here's what really kills people at national parks

Last week, a pair of French hikers died of heat exhaustion in White Sands National Monument after setting out on a day hike without enough water. Three days later a hiker was killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone. These incidents are unspeakable tragedies for the people and families involved, but the fact that they make national news underscores a key point: the nation's national parks are an incredibly safe place to visit. The National Park Service maintains internal records of annual fatalities at the parks, and researchers have studied them from time to time in recent years. Here are the important things to know:

1You are not going to die at a national park. I mean technically, you might. But the odds of it happening are really, really low. Somewhere between 120 and 140 people typically die at national parks each year, not counting suicides, according to numbers maintained by the National Park Service. That may sound like a lot, but consider that roughly 280 million people visit the parks each year. That means that if you go to a national park, your odds of dying there are roughly 1 in 2 million. For comparison, that's similar to the likelihood that you'll die of Ebola at some point in your life.

2If you do die, it probably won't be from something you'd expect. What keeps you awake at night when you go camping in the wilderness? Getting mauled by a bear? Dying of heat? How about dying of cold? In reality, these are among the least-common causes of death in national parks. And some of the most common causes are the same things that people die from anywhere, like car crashes and suicide. The No. 1 cause of death? Drowning.

The motor vehicle crashes are particularly interesting. A 2008 study found that visitors distracted by scenery were a contributing factor in 27 percent of all fatal car crashes at national parks. Alcohol was a factor in 23 percent of these crashes, and foreign visitors crossing the center line to drive on the wrong side of the road were responsible for 14 percent of fatal crashes.

Wildlife attacks, on the other hand, are among the rarest ways to die. Between 2007 and 2013, four people were killed by bears, one died from a snakebite, and one unfortunate hiker was killed by a mountain goat in 2010.

3Men are three times more likely to die than women. A 2008 analysis of park fatality data found that men accounted for fully 75 percent of park deaths in 2003 and 2004. And people in their 20s and 50s accounted for more than half of all fatalities.

4International visitors from some countries are more likely to die than others. Excluding domestic visitors, more Germans died in parks in 2003 and 2004 than any other visitors. Italians, Mexicans and Japanese were close behind. Nothing too surprising here as these numbers seem to jibe with total tourist counts from those countries in those years. Domestic visitors accounted for 73 percent of all fatalities.

5The big Western parks see the most death. Surprisingly, the National Park Service doesn't keep easy-to-access tallies of fatality counts for individual parks anywhere. But one way to find these numbers is to parse the service's daily "morning reports," where news about fatalities and other incidents in the parks are posted each day.

I scoured the 2014 reports for a sense of where people are dying the most. Grand Canyon led the list of fatalities in 2014, with 13 deaths appearing in the morning reports. Lake Mead National Recreation Area came in second, with a number of deaths caused by drowning and automobile accidents. Washington's Mount Rainier was third, primarily because six climbers lost their lives in a single avalanche accident in May.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

© 2015 Washington Post

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