A few things.
First of all, statistics:
The river is a dangerous environment, but statistically, it is much safer than the drive to the river. The fatality rate for participating in commercial whitewater rafting is .45/100000 user days vs. 15/100000 for automobiles. AW has some great info on this at American Whitewater - Whitewater is Safer Than You Think
. They even used the Ark (which when they did the study had the highest fatality rate among studied rivers- 17 in the five years they studied).
Regardless of the stats, compared to cycling @ 1.6/100000, I would say that commercial companies are doing a pretty good job of keeping Joe Rafter relatively "safe". Are we doing enough? We should always try to do better.
Secondly, commercial companies:
I think there are two huge areas for improvement that could be made, and both have to do with communication.
As guides, we need to do a better job communicating the risks to the rafters. Everyone has a waiver, but during our safety talks, we need to let people know that things can happen. I don't want to ever have a 4 or 5 year old get tossed out of my boat on a class III trip and have a parent say "I didn't know this could happen!" We need to help them make informed decisons. We also shouldn't ever say "you'll be fine" or something like that when someone comes up who is nervous and asks if they will be safe. We are used to running our trips well, and having them go smoothly, but we should never try to convince someone, even lightly, that they or thier kids will not swim, drown, or slip and fall. I have been guilty of this before. Oh, you'll be fine, don't worry, we do this every day. There are better ways to word it, like "here's what could happen, but to let you know, I've had 0 people swim this section off my boat this year (or 5 or 33, or whatever)
Also, we always assume that the guests are using their own best judgement as rafters about their abilities. We shouldn't do this. In the commercial rafter's mind, they are deferring all decisions about rafting to the professional guide, because they are better informed. We as guides make assumptions about people's health, that they wouldn't be participating if they were worried that they would have their 3rd heart attack if they fall out of the boat. I think there should a little more added on to safety talks or to waiver signings about this. "We make river decisions, you make the participation decision."
Thirdly, I think we need to turn away more guests. I saw a 450lb guy floating on a commercial trip on Brown's one day. I'm a bigger guy, and try to lift weights and shit, but I don't know if I could drag that dude back in the boat by myself. We expect the guests to use common sense about their abilities, but as guides, or TL's, or raft companies, someone needs to use common sense here too. We all too often like to say "you'll do fine, get on the boat". No thanks!
Finally, and most importantly, I think safety talks lack self-rescue as a major theme. Even from very experienced guides, they skip this part, or glaze over it. This needs to be the number 1 theme. "If I can't help you, you have to be able to help yourself, you are on your own. If you aren't comfortable with your ability to do that, you should consider whether or not you should be participating, and understand the risk involved."
The more common one that you hear is "if you can't swim, tell your guide". Wrong!!! I think you say, "if you can't swim, you should decide if you are comfortable with the risk of having to save yourself should your guide be unable to assist you!"
Anyone have any other suggestions? What about training? SWR as a requirement for guides? For TLs (most already have this). Medical training? The better we can self-regulate, the better off we will be. We all know, like LC said, we don't want the government deciding what is best, because then things will really get ugly.