Saturday, December 04, 2010

"Risk assessment", and why we took time off a favourite outdoor pursuit...

...but just for four days.

For four l-o-n-g days we decided not to go out for the customary early morning run. Just too lazy to get out of bed? Nope. Injury? Nope. Too busy? Nope. It was about "risk assessment".

The roads (and trails) were extremely icy and we determined that to go out in minimalist VFF footwear ("Classics" have absolutely zero traction on ice) or even conventional trail shoes, there was simply too great a risk of injury due to a slip and fall. Running is our favourite way to begin the day but to invite the possibility of slipping on the "black ice" that might result in a strain, a sprain, a broken bone...or worse, wasn't going to be a good idea.

Every one of us participates in the daily process of "risk assessment". Every action we take, incurs some degree of "risk", even if the risk is infinitesimally small. Heck, I was filing some papers the other day, and ended up with an annoying paper cut on my finger!

Certainly, some routine risk assessments are done with more considered thought than others. This morning, for example, I was waiting to cross the intersection downtown. The traffic light turned green but before stepping off the curb, I noted a small van that had elected to ignore the red light. The thing is, I'm not actually sure who was driving, the individual sitting in the driver's seat, or the white, fluffy Shih Tzu on his lap. (A Shih Tzu is a dog, I think). People who allow any dog to sit on their laps while driving are, in my mind, dumb, dumber, dumbest! I'm sorry if that sounds harsh but 5000 pounds of metal and glass, apparently being "co-piloted" by a self-satisfied, smug-looking, ribbon-wearing, hypoallergenic ball of fur that has been bred to resemble a miniature lion? Huh? It's a bit like trying to drive while attempting to (simultaneously) text message, floss teeth, and enter a new destination on the GPS - WHILE MAKING A LANE CHANGE! Observing a Shih Tzu "behind the wheel" is not all that uncommon around here and it should be pretty scary for anybody sharing the public roadways! Yep, inadequate risk assessment by the aforementioned driver, I'd say.

In outdoor pursuits, adventure and risk go hand in hand. Whether it's trail running, sea kayaking, mountaineering or whatever, the value and safety of any self-propelled activity is enhanced by responsible risk assessment.

Some years ago, when we were living in Banff, an outdoor leadership conference was held in Lake Louise. A presentation by Bill March, an Associate Professor of Physical Education at the University of Calgary, offered a simple process for assessing risk. Just for fun we applied his three stages of risk analysis when we noted the icy conditions prior to our run last week. Maybe you will also find this process helpful. They are as follows:

STAGE 1 - "Risk identification": This is a consideration of all the variable factors that present risk. For us, in this particular situation, we noted the following: there was a great deal of black ice on the road surface; the running route included several steep hills; our footwear provided no traction; it was dark; there would be traffic on the road, also dealing with black ice conditions. This is the level of awareness and perception.

STAGE 2 - "Risk estimation": This identifies possible consequences in light of the risks identified. For us, the single most obvious potential consequence was that there was a good possibility of a slip on the ice which could easily lead to a fall.  The is the level of technical judgement. (A "no brainer" in our situation)

STAGE 3 - "Risk evaluation": We knew that an injury from a fall could mean that we might not run for days, weeks, maybe months (been there, done that). Further, we knew the weather was forecast to warm up in several days. Result: We determined that it just didn't seem worth the risk to run in these poor conditions. This is the level of judgement that leads to a decision - go or no go.

Every one of us who enjoys outdoor adventure must engage in risk assessment. We've found this simple 3-Stage process, together with a good measure of caution, has kept us out of trouble, for the most part anyway.  The guy who drove the van through a red light, with the Shih Tzu on his lap, might benefit from a similar process!

Take good care out there.


PS  I love dogs. I just don't think they should be behind the wheel!


  1. What about dashunds...are they allowed on your lap while driving as it is almost impossible to keep her in her own seat...guess I'm one of the dumbest! ( and I know it...just haven't found a solution yet)
    Glad you put safety first! Smart thinking.

  2. Dashunds? Hmm, let me think. I had a long-haired Dashund when I was young. Um, I think they're OK behind the wheel so long as they have proper training and certification. NOT! You know what, I think I could get in a little hot water on this one. :-) But thanks for your comment! D.

  3. Right on Duncan! No animals of any type should be behind the wheel of any kind of moving vehicle. I too, have seen the picture you are painting here. Way too scary! For anyone wondering how to solve the problem, there are animal crates and animal seat belts for their safety. No more on this subject.....

    I thought I was doing careful risk management as my father died a few days after slipping on black ice, but I fell despite trying hard to be safe. The hill on Indian Road on the way to Glenora was left undriven by me, and a taxi hired.


  4. Whether it's deciding on the kind of food we eat or the route we're going to take for an overnight in the backcountry, it's a lot about risk management. Responsible and conscious assessment would make for a lot more happier (and safer) conclusions! Gen.

  5. Thanks, Sheila and Gen, for your comments and reflections. Yes, some lessons are hard earned. Take care, both of you. D.