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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Research professor Dominic Golding and student Ethan Moore collaborated on a study of visitor safety in the United States National Parks.

Visitor safety in the National Park System

Researchers at the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University are presently conducting a comprehensive study of visitor safety in the National Park System. This research is funded by the National Park Service Social Science Program through the Idaho University Cooperative Park Studies Unit.

The Project Research summary follows, below. For further information, go to the project web site.

During the summer of 2000, accident and incident data for 1993-98 will be collected from a sample of 30 of the National Park units. These data will be used to conduct a thorough analysis of visitor risks and contributing conditions. Visitor surveys will be conducted in the winter of 2000/1 and the summer of 2001 to evaluate visitor perceptions of risks in the parks. Project reports will be made available on this web site as they are completed.


Between 1993 and 1998, 870 people died and many more suffered injuries and illnesses during visits to various units of the National Park Service (NPS). Concerns about visitor safety will continue to grow as the number of visitors continues to rise – there were over 287 million recreational visits to NPS sites in 1998. Recognizing these concerns, the NPS has implemented a policy to reduce visitor safety accident rates. In order to implement this policy efficiently and effectively, however, the NPS needs to know more about the patterns of visitor accidents, their nature, and the environmental and other contributing conditions. This project is intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of visitor safety in the NPS that will help to answer some of these questions. The project comprises seven tasks that will be conducted over 18 months beginning April 1, 2000.

Task 1: Sample selection

A stratified random sample of 30 of the 378 NPS units in the nation will be chosen by the project team, in consultation with the NPS Social Science Program and other program and park managers. Visitor incident and accident data from these units will be collected and analyzed under Tasks 3 and 4. Visitor surveys will be conducted at 7 of these sites in the winter of 2000/1 and at all 30 sites in the summer 2001.

A discussion paper will be prepared that proposes possible sample selection criteria and discusses the advantages and disadvantages of alternative sampling strategies. This paper will be distributed to the NPS Social Science Program and other NPS program managers for discussion at the first project workshop in Washington, DC. The discussion paper and a summary of the discussions will be made available on this website.

Task 2: Literature review

The project team will conduct a review of the research literature relevant to visitor safety, risk management, and risk communication, including theoretical, methodological, and empirical studies of high risk visitor populations, activities, environments, and other factors contributing to risk. In addition, we will also examine literature pertaining to visitor wildlife watching behavior and wildlife-visitor interactions. The goal of the review will be to summarize what is known, and to identify what further research is needed. The review will be based on selected social science research relevant to NPS visitor safety and a comprehensive review of research that is directly concerned with NPS visitor safety. Topical areas that will inform the research literature review will include, but not be limited to: general theories of risk and risk taxonomies; hazards and risk management; risk perception and risk-seeking behavior; risk communication; motor vehicle and boating safety; human factors and ergonomics; recreational and leisure behaviors; and visitor safety in parks.

Task 3: Risk Analysis

Case Incident Reports (CIRs) from 1993-98 will be the primary source of data for the risk analysis. CIRs are filed for all visitor accidents/incidents, and include information, such as the time, date, location, and type of the accident, as well as a narrative description of the sequence of events, contributing factors, parties involved, and personnel responses. Since the number of CIRs at any given NPS unit can be quite large, the project will use a systematic random sampling strategy to select CIRs relating to visitor safety at each of the 30 chosen units. Pertinent information will be extracted, coded, and entered into a database. Other sources of data, such as Emergency Medical Service Reports (EMSRs) and Morning Reports will be used to verify and supplement these data.

Descriptive statistics, crosstabulations, and logistic regression will be used to summarize and examine the pattern of incidents, accidents, and fatalities according to demographic characteristics, visitor activities, environments, apparent causes, other contributing factors or relevant conditions, and actions taken in response to the accident/incident by park personnel and others.

Task 4: Risk conditions

The project team will draw up a comprehensive inventory of hazards and risk conditions currently found at the 30 NPS units, with a special emphasis on the high risk conditions found in Tasks 2 and 3. The inventory will be based on a review of risk literature, including the experience of park and wildlife managers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world (Task 2), an analysis of NPS data (Task 3), and substantial input from park and program managers in the U.S. (Task 7). When there is reasonable consensus between the project team and NPS personnel on the classification of hazards and hazardous conditions, the project team will attempt to grade each park unit in the sample according to qualitative measures (high, medium, low) of relative risk and risk conditions. This grading exercise will be based in part on the accident/incident data (Task 2 and 3), but it will also require significant input from NPS personnel at each site, since they are intimately familiar with the environmental and other conditions at each park unit.

Task 5: Visitor survey

A questionnaire survey will be used to gather information on visitor perceptions of risk, visitor perceptions of safety messages and other safety related management activities, and visitor risk behavior. Approximately 400 questionnaires will be distributed in the summer 2001 at each of the 30 NPS units. Approximately 250 additional questionnaires will also be distributed during the winter (2000/01) to 7 of the 30 park units with significant winter visitation.

Descriptive statistics (e.g., frequency distributions and cross-tabulations) will be used to summarize data for individual parks, all parks as a whole, and various high risk activities, environments, and conditions. The analysis will examine the relationships among and between sociodemographic characteristics and risk perceptions, attitudes towards safety information and advice, behavioral intentions and responses, support for risk management activities, and visitor expectations and responsibilities. The survey data will allow meaningful comparisons to be made between the public perceptions of risk, the "actual risk" as revealed in Task 3, and the nature of the risks according to park managers (Task 7).

Task 6: Synthesis

A technical report will provide a synthesis of the literature review (Task 2), accident data risk analysis (Tasks 3 and 4), visitor survey (Task 5), and interviews and nominal group process with NPS park managers and other employees (Task 7. The report will also include a set of formal recommendations that will be based on the findings of these analyses and discussions with the NPS program and park managers.

Recommendations for action that can be undertaken by the NPS to improve visitor safety will be included. Emphasis will be placed on developing recommendations that provide practical risk management advice, such as priorities for action and strategies for targeting risk management efforts. Such recommendations will be designed to help NPS managers set priorities for using available resources, at the park unit level and at the systems level (e.g., by identifying where activities are likely to have an effect on problems that are tractable at the park unit level and where they are likely to be intractable at the park unit, or even national, level).

Task 7: Collaboration

The members of the project team will work in close collaboration with NPS Social Science Program and other managers at all stages of the project, beginning with the initial selection of the 30 units for inclusion in the study. Park managers of the units selected for analysis will be contacted as soon as possible to explain the nature of the project and to solicit their ideas and concerns. This web site will allow park managers and others to track easily the progress of the project, find copies of reports as they become available, and express their ideas and concerns. Twenty to thirty interviews will be conducted with "key informants" (e.g., park managers, safety officers, park rangers) to obtain additional input about visitor safety. These semi-structured interviews will be conducted by phone and in person when project personnel are on-site for data gathering and survey administration. Two workshops will be held during the course of the project. Workshop 1 will be used to solicit managers concerns about visitor safety and to evaluate the sample selection criteria. Workshop 2 will be held near the end of the project to discuss the project findings prior to completion of the final report.


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