Complacency: Don’t Let Overconfidence Cause a Diving Accident

When you review the annual DAN and other diving accident reports, a significant proportion of them are caused by human error. Equipment failure (of standard equipment, used and maintained properly) rarely appears in the reports. Sudden changes in diving conditions and illness can play their part, but the human-error element still qualifies as the main precipitator for a diving accident.

The questions is — why? By and large, it’s unlikely because of improper training. All dive organizations are quite vigilant in maintaining their standards, and if lack of training was the main issue, you’d expect the majority of divers involved in accidents to be inexperienced or newly trained, which isn’t the case.

A skydiving instructor told me once that the most dangerous time in a skydiving career is considered to be between jumps 100 and 500, as a disproportionate number of accidents involve skydivers whose experience falls within that range. The reason: complacency. By the time you’ve completed 100 skydives, you’ve gained a good amount of experience, and you’re comfortable skydiving. You’re not as scared as on your first jumps, and you’ve established a fair bit of routine. But that also means that you’re perhaps not quite as vigilant as you were before (motivated somewhat by fear), and perhaps you’re pushing your own limits a bit. And then accidents happen.

I recognize this state from my own hobbies of rock climbing and mountaineering. In mountaineering, we usually say that the biggest killer is a condition called “get-home-itis.” It’s a fact that most accidents happen on the way down a mountain because, on the return route, you’re tired, you’re relaxed, and you want to get home and have a shower and a hearty meal. You become, in a word, complacent.

I suspect that the same phenomenon happens in scuba diving, and is the reason why we see fairly experienced divers get into trouble. Once you can comfortably dive without being nervous and you begin to push the envelope a bit, the risk of accidents increases. And if an accident does occur, you may not yet have the experience required to handle it. There may come a time when you’ve got so many dives to your name that you can complete them safely without a conscious thought, but if that is the case, it most likely doesn’t kick in until you’ve had thousands of dives in many varied conditions.

We should, of course, continue to challenge ourselves in diving and in life since that’s how we grow, but we need to do it with all the vigilance of the first-time diver, paying close attention to safety procedures and the conditions we are facing. We must remind ourselves that scuba diving is a high-risk activity — I use that term specifically rather than calling it an ‘extreme sport’ or ‘dangerous,’ because although diving is not dangerous, it does carry with it an inherent risk and we must act accordingly by keeping complacency at bay.

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