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What’s the most dangerous thing that your outdoor program
The answer: Vehicles.
Driving is statistically the most
dangerous activity for any outdoor program. Because vehicular accidents can be
so serious many programs have specific risk management protocols--things like
mandatory driver training, specific vehicle driving protocols, specialized
license requirements like a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) or background
motor vehicle checks on drivers. Those are just some of the proactive risk
management strategies to help reduce the potential for vehicular accidents.
If driving in vehicles is so dangerous, what about other
activities that expose your participants to vehicles, like crossing high
trafficked roads? Isn’t this a high risk activity? I say the answer is yes. And
yet many programs don’t specifically have a Road Crossing Protocol. I think
road crossing has been seriously overlooked as a risk management issue for
outdoor programs. Why is that?
Let’s take a look at another ‘crossing protocol.’ Most
programs have specific protocols for river crossings like unbuckling hipbelts
and chest straps to be able to shed the pack quickly. When you come to a river
crossing, you assess a whole range of factors to determine if the crossing is hazardous
including (but not limited to):
Based on this data you determine if there are significant
risks in doing the crossing. If the river is only 6 inches deep and 5 feet
across, you may decide that people don’t need to implement a protocol like unbuckling
their hipbelts before stepping across. If it’s 3+ feet deep and 30 feet across
you’d initiate the protocol to undo hipbelts. There might also be a series of
other specific actions you would take to safely cross the river. If crossing a
river can be hazardous and need special protocols to reduce the risk, why not
specific protocols for crossing roads?
The first reason that road crossing has often been ignored is
that not all programs operate in areas where travelers have to deal with road
crossings. If you are running your backpacking program in the Wind River Range
in Wyoming or the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, roads simply aren’t an
issue. If, on the other hand, you run trips up and down the Appalachian Trail
for example, road crossings can be a daily occurrence. Having run programs for
over thirty years on the Appalachian Trail, I can tell you that there are some
significantly dangerous road crossings along the AT.
Here are a few that I’ve come in contact with. The first is
on the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey at Route 206 in Culver’s Gap. The AT
crosses Route 206, a busy, high trafficked road that can present real hazards
to a group at certain times of day. The next is in Harriman State Park in New
York. The AT (also called the Ramapo-Dunderburg Trail) in the park crosses the
Palisades Parkway. The Palisades is a two-lane divided highway with no shoulder
and a grassy median in the center. I’ve crossed it safely with a group in the
early afternoon when there is little traffic. At rush hour it is a constant
stream of cars traveling 65+ mph in both directions. There is literally no way
to get across until the traffic dies down. And these are just some of the
So what can you do to address the risk associated with high
speed vehicular traffic on roads?
Road Crossing Protocol
Our trips must often cross roads. This can be hazardous due
to the unpredictable nature of drivers and traffic. In order to safeguard all
members of the group, leaders should be cautious and use good judgment. The
procedures below outline the expectations for leaders crossing roads:
Like river crossings we can identify a number of factors
that can increase the risk level of road crossings:
Let me give you an example from the Palisades Parkway in
Harriman State Park. At one of the trail crossings there is a curve in the road
to the north limiting visibility. In timing the traffic on one occasion I noted
that from the time the vehicle was first visible coming from the north to the
time it got to the trail crossing was 19 seconds. Timing a person with a full
backpack crossing the road at a walking pace it took about 10 seconds. If the
car is traveling 65 MPH then the extra 9 seconds is not a lot of leeway. A car
can travel hundreds of feet in 9 seconds and even if the driver sees the person
and steps on the brakes immediately, the car still requires a significant distance
to stop and is coming closer to the person every second. What if the person has trouble getting across
the road? What is the driver is distracted or texting? What if the road conditions
are slippery or the tires or brakes on the car are bad? Based on this risk
assessment I determined that we should implement a Road Crossing Policy
Now that I’ve explained the protocol, let me go back to the
Palisades Parkway example. It was early afternoon so traffic was not very
heavy. However the lack of visibility to the north because of the curve meant
that a car would suddenly appear with only 19 seconds ‘warning.’ We sent one
person down to the corner who could see significantly farther north. When that
person saw that it was clear of traffic she raised her arm over her head
indicating that it was clear to cross. That allowed people to cross to the
grassy median. Then we implemented the same system for the next two lanes of
traffic coming up from the south.
Protocols are one thing, judgment is another. There is a
famous quote from Paul Petzoldt, founder of the National Outdoor Leadership
School. He said, “rules are for fools.” Taken out of context a lot of people
have interpreted this statement to mean that Paul rejected protocols. On the
contrary. Drew Leemon, NOLS Risk Manager, once asked Petzoldt what he meant.
Petzoldt explained that protocols were useful and necessary, for example, a
protocol that requires people to wear life jackets on the river is a good thing.
What he meant was that you can’t write a protocol/rule for every situation and
the person who thinks you can take some huge rule book into the wilderness to
just decide how to handle all situations is a fool. In the end Protocols work
hand in hand with Instructor Judgment. A Road Crossing protocol (or any
protocol) is a tool. It requires judgment to decide when to use the tool to
effectively reduce hazards. I don’t use the Road Crossing protocol every time I
cross a road, just like I don’t unbuckle a hipbelt every time I cross a stream.
The job of the instructor is to assess if the road crossing presents a
significant hazard. If it does, the protocol provides a tool to mitigate the
In order to offer a ‘complete’ risk management perspective
on this, you should consult with your legal counsel about the potential
liabilities associated both with having or not having a road crossing protocol.
This is not (at least not yet) an ‘accepted industry standard’ like lightning protocols
are. As a result, you need, with legal advice, to determine if this in your
program’s best interest from a legal liability perspective. I believe that it
does mitigate many of the hazards of road crossings, but risk mitigation is not
necessarily the same thing as liability mitigation. Some legal experts might
argue that people (specifically adults) cross roads all the time and are fully
capable of making their own decisions about crossing safety so having a
protocol places an increased burden on the program to manage an individual’s
safety. In this case, the legal advice might be to not have a protocol and
assume no responsibility for managing people’s risk when crossing roads. However,
if you work with minors then they might be considered not to have the experience
to assess the hazard and make appropriate decisions. My personal feeling is
that this is fundamentally an ethical issue first and a legal issue second. If
I know of a hazard that my participants are not aware of or would not consider
(regardless of their age) then it is my moral obligation to inform them of the
hazards and, I believe, to take a step further than that which is to provide a protocol
for mitigating the hazard.
For more information on managing risk I suggest you read the
Risk Assessment and Safety Management (RASM) model which I developed and which
is in use by outdoor programs throughout the US and internationally.
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