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 Is it safe

Safety is a major concern for all divers, particularly novices - here's a reassuring evaluation of the risks

When people ask me about how safe scuba diving is, my stock answer is that it’s no more dangerous than driving a car or crossing the road. If you follow some basic rules and safety procedures, then, by and large, everything will be fine.

This should not be seen as an attempt to play down the fact that there are risks involved in scuba diving, and I think it’s important to be up-front and honest about them. 

If you ignore the risk involved in any activity and do not seek to minimise that risk at all times, then even a simple act such as crossing the road becomes very dangerous. You probably do it safely every day, but if you don’t stop, look and listen, then the chances of an accident increase. 

If you’re driving through a busy town centre with a 30mph speed limit and you don’t go faster, then your chances of causing an accident are small. If you choose to drive at 60mph through that busy town centre, however….

I use the driving versus diving analogies a lot during training and discussions about scuba safety because they draw an easily understandable parallel between the two. 

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Pairs of divers prepare to descend

A 2010 study by the Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) showed that in the United States fatality rates associated with scuba diving were very similar to those associated with driving a vehicle. The report also noted that both of these figures are not much greater than the number of fatalities associated with jogging. 

Furthermore, the report covered the entire spectrum of scuba related activities, from basic recreational diving to deep, technical diving. Statistics provided by the leading training agency PADI during the same study, but relating specifically to training accidents, showed that they are far, far fewer than those that occur among the general diving population.

The idea that scuba diving carries no more risk that driving a car (and not much more than jogging) should bring a measure of reassurance to those considering whether or not they wish to learn to dive. Although the mainstream media bombards us with the worst stories, it’s important to remember that for every accident that makes the headlines, millions of other people get in their cars – or go scuba diving – every day, without any incident whatsoever.

When you learn to dive, the most basic principles of recreational diving safety are taught from the first day of entry-level courses.

An experienced technical diver needs to check their equipment and air supply as carefully as a newly certified Open Water diver. Just like driving a car – neither a Formula 1 world champion nor a newly qualified motorist popping to the shops will get very far with an empty fuel tank and a flat tyre, and both must take extra care in poor weather.

All divers, regardless of experience level, need to judge how conditions underwater might affect their dive plan. The most common cause of accidents in both driving and diving – both entry level and advanced – is error on behalf of the person undertaking the activity: checks were not made, relative experience was not considered, limits were deliberately exceeded.

From the first day of training, all these concepts are introduced in the name of safety.

Just as passing your vehicle test does not grant you the right to exceed the speed limit or to ignore weather conditions, passing your entry level diving course does not entitle you to dive in deep water with strong currents and poor visibility.

You are not learning to be the world champion of scuba diving – you are learning the basic principles of a safe, enjoyable underwater existence, from which you may progress through experience and further education to explore new challenges and new environments.

All of the relevant checks and safety drills are repeated numerous times throughout every entry level course under the watchful supervision of an instructor.

What’s also important to note is that scuba diving is taught as a team effort. The 'buddy system' is a safety protocol used in many activities that involve some form of risk, is taught during all entry-level diver training programs and is adhered to during almost all recreational diving, even the most advanced. It means that you are paired with another diver and therefore automatically there are two people to check that everything works and look out for each other underwater. 

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A buddy pair at the surface

As a recreational diver, especially in the typical holiday resort environment, it’s highly likely that you will dive – and learn to dive – with other people that you have never met before.

Diving in a group is reassuring and has significant benefits to overall safety. Every other diver in the team, even if you don’t know them, is another pair of eyes to spot potential problems and provide an alternative source of air in an emergency if necessary.

The group dynamic allows people to share ideas and discuss solutions, even giving some people the confidence to raise an issue with the instructor that they otherwise would not have felt comfortable broaching. Apart from anything else, it’s a great way to celebrate certification at the end of the course, and share stories about what you’ve seen and experienced.

Safety is paramount to recreational diving. The training programs that are available have been developed and refined for more than fifty years based on scientific and medical research, along with the combined experience from the millions of dives that have been undertaken over the years.

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An instructor keeps a close eye on a pair of divers

Advances in technology mean that there is really no such thing as 'unsafe' diving equipment, assuming it’s used and maintained correctly, and, thanks to the rise and power of social media, operators that may have flouted safety regulations in the past are in decline. Recreational scuba diving is a big worldwide business and if it was unsafe then well, it wouldn’t be.

From my own experience as an instructor, that of my friends and colleagues over the years, and the hundreds of thousands of dive professionals who work in the world of recreational diving, I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that while there is always some risk associated with scuba diving, properly conducted entry-level training programs go a long way to minimising that risk through solid application of safe diving practices and education.

Finally, although scuba diving is one of the most wonderful pastimes available in the world today, it’s not for everybody. In the next article, we’ll have a look at how people who are interested in learning to dive – but aren’t certain if it’s something in which they wish to invest their time and money – can help to determine if it’s right for them.

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