Thrill-seekers looking for adventure this spring break may want to look closer before they leap.
A CBC Marketplace investigation into adventure sports — in Canada and abroad — reveals that while many Canadians have tried outdoor adventure activities such as whitewater rafting, zip-lining and bungee jumping, few realize how little protection they may have in case of an accident.
Watch Marketplace's episode, Up in the Air, Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador). Discover important tips and useful links by following the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #adventure.
There are no national statistics on injuries or deaths related to these activities in Canada.
However, Marketplace discovered that in British Columbia alone, between 2006 and 2010, data from the provincial coroner’s office shows an average of 58 people died each year while doing adventure activities including snowmobiling and scuba diving.
“We have no central tracking system; there's no authority that would keep track of such a statistic,” Jeff Jackson, a 20-year veteran of the outdoor adventure industry and instructor at Algonquin College in Ontario, told Marketplace co-host Erica Johnson.
“This information is bottled up inside the companies themselves.”
The full investigation, Up in the Air — including what you need to know to protect yourself — airs Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. NT) on CBC Television.
Legal action hampered
In a survey commissioned by Marketplace, 58 per cent of Canadians say they’ve tried outdoor adventure sports.
Almost as many — 54 per cent — say they didn’t understand that by signing a waiver, it may be almost impossible to successfully sue the company, even when the company has failed to take basic safety precautions.
Companies that are at fault may face few consequences for failing to protect the basic safety of their customers.
Signing a waiver, which is commonly required to participate in adventure activities, makes it difficult to successfully sue a company in case of an accident. Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have consistently upheld waivers, even when company staff was clearly negligent.
In one 2008 case, an inexperienced diver drowned during a dive with an Ontario diving company in the St. Lawrence River.
While the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found the company had sold the diver inadequate equipment and the instructor left him on the bottom of the river in a clear state of panic, the court upheld the waiver and dismissed the family’s case.
"It was clear from the evidence of his widow that [the victim] Mr. Isildar was an educated and careful man ... I find that he had the capacity to know what he was signing and the purpose of the liability release," wrote Justice Giovanna Toscano Roccamo.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of British Columbia found that signing the waiver protected the company after two women were badly injured when they collided on a zip-line in Whistler.
While the company was at fault — staff had failed to check if the line was clear before sending the next woman down — the court upheld the waiver.
Know the risks
Edmonton lawyer Barbara Stratton, who specializes in personal injury lawsuits, says people need to be aware of what they’re signing.
"You're not really protected. You chose to engage in that sport. You knew, or should have known what you were signing,” she says.
“You can back out at any time until that lift goes up, and otherwise, you just hope that it's a credible company with well-trained staff and that everything goes well."
Jackson says Canadians assume there’s a higher level of professional standards and regulatory oversight for adventure sports.
“There's an underwritten assumption in society that if you're in business and providing this service, you're going to do it right,” he says.
“There should be standards in place. Should it be buyer beware? No.”
Patchwork of oversight
The majority of the outdoor adventure industry in Canada is self-regulated. Some activities such as canoeing and kayaking are governed by voluntary standards for training.
“There is nobody regulating the industry,” says Jackson. “The adventure industry gets side-swiped with some regulations, coast guard regulations here, some technical standards over here, some vehicle registration over here.
"But there is no comprehensive model that's capturing adventure tourism regulation within Canada.”
Some provinces, and certain sports, have better protections than others. Some provincial bodies take complaints against unsafe operators. In B.C., for example, the BC Safety Authority can investigate, inspect or fine zip-line operators if an accident has occurred.
However, in one case that Marketplace discovered, one company had three accidents in one month before it faced a penalty: a six-day suspension of its operation.
'It's not the authority's job to do quality control.' - Jason Gill
But Jason Gill of the BC Safety Authority says it’s up to companies to ensure their operations are safe and make sure they have training programs in place.
“It is not the authority's job to do quality control. Quality control is incumbent upon the operator, and we are looking at things from a systems perspective and we come in and we see that they're meeting those obligations,” he says.
“I think that we have a system in place that protects people in British Columbia.”
Jackson cautions travellers looking for adventures outside of Canada to be even more careful.
"If you start to stray further and further away, going into developing nations where tourism is just getting organized from an infrastructure standpoint, we can realistically expect there’s nothing there as guidelines go."