First published in ITIJ 112, May 2010
With more people than ever embarking on adventure holidays, Roger St Pierre questions whether the decision to cover some sports but not others is based on a whim, or on solid statistical research
Everything in life involves a risk factor. It’s part of the human condition, and why the insurance industry exists. However, there are some for whom danger is a positive addiction and for whom risk taking is a lifestyle choice – with possible fatal consequences. It’s for risk assessors and life actuaries to assess just what activities they are prepared to cover.
The problem lies with the wide divergence of underwriter opinion on just what is dangerous and, to the outsider at least, it seems that decisions on what, or what not, to cover, are based more on perception than on the actual facts.
So, what leisure pursuit has the most deaths per 100,000 participants? You’d be surprised to know it’s lawn bowls, with three times more deaths on the greens each year than are seen on the rugby pitch over the same period.
Of course, this is because most of those who take part in lawn bowls are elderly and sometimes even the mild exercise levels involved prove too much for participants.
Perhaps more surprising is the high mortality rates seen on the golf course. This isn’t just down to overweight business people overdoing it at the 19th hole; the culprit is lightning, which claims many of its victims out on the greens and fairways.
underwriters generally regard road cycling as a coverable activity, most don’t feel the same about mountain biking
Yet few insurers refuse cover for golf or, for that matter, lightning strikes. Nor do they demand big loaded premiums if they are to include cover for playing cricket – though there’s statistically four times more chance of death or serious injury from being hit by a cricket ball, which travels through the air at well over 100 mph, than there is of being pummelled unconscious in the boxing ring.
It’s amazing, but while 1,523 American golfers die of lightning strikes each year without policy exclusions, – around 450 of them in Florida alone – any activity that involves sharing the water with sharks is almost certain to be denied cover by most insurers. Yet only three of the world’s 450 species of shark are actually man-eaters and there have been just 869 recorded attacks globally since 1990, of which only 114 were fatal. Last year’s shark bite death toll was just four. Nor are shark related activities anywhere near as dangerous as simply sitting relaxing under a coconut tree, an activity – or should that be lack of it? – that takes around 250 lives a year.
Brent Escott, managing director of Australian tour operator Club Direct, commented: “People worry incessantly about being bitten by sharks when they come here but I suggest that they would be better advised not to sit under a coconut tree!”
Similarly, the Tour de France bicycle race, which sends its riders toiling up, then hurtling back down, lofty mountain passes, hitting speeds of close on 60 mph, often with a sheer drop at one side, is renowned for its spectacular crashes.
Yet since the first Tour in 1903, there have only been two riders killed in fatal accidents on the road – Francesco Cepeda in 1935, and Fabio Casartelli in 1995. But, Adolphe Heliére was electrocuted by a jellyfish whilst bathing on a Cote d’Azur rest day in 1910, while in 1956 the official taking photos who stepped in front of André Darrigade on the Parc des Princes track during the final stage of the race, was killed by the impact.
Although underwriters generally regard road cycling as a coverable activity, most don’t feel the same about mountain biking, even though the raw statistics show there is negligible difference in injury rates between these two branches of the same activity.
World and Olympic champion track cyclist, Sir Chris Hoy, said: “It annoys me when insurance people start talking about cycling being dangerous. I was recently out of competition for a few months myself, but it’s a truism that in competition there are very few serious accidents. The crashes can be spectacular but, in most cases, it’s just a matter of cuts and grazes.
He continued: “When it comes to leisure cycling and bicycle commuting, the published statistics can be made to look bad. That’s because they are based on accidents per mile when they should be calculated according to time at risk – an hour’s cycling being a whole lot safer than an hour spent sitting in a car.”
There is, though, a huge difference in risk levels between cross-country skiing and the more extreme downhill skiing activities. The ever-widening diversity of wintersports activities, some of them almost suicidally dangerous, make an underwriter’s job very difficult. The recent 2010 Vancouver Olympics luge tragedy, which took the life of competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili from Georgia, has only served to highlight the risks involved. Using special skis and aerodynamic suits, speed skiers hit 160 mph in what is the world’s fastest non-motorised sport, and other snow-sports are getting faster and faster.
The ever-widening diversity of wintersports activities, some of them almost suicidally dangerous, make an underwriter’s job very difficult
Many sports are now extremely safety conscious, which explains how the one-time regular carnage of car and motorbike racing has been drastically reduced. Of course, the sports with the most injuries can be very different from those with the highest death rates – among the former being, believe it or not, American-style cheerleading, which, these days, tends to involve a degree of gymnastics. Form human pyramids and you must take the consequences!
In recent times there’s been a veritable explosion onto the scene of so-called extreme sports and specialist brokers have emerged to cater for this new and highly specialist market. Protect Direct Online is a UK-based specialist independent brokerage offering tailor-made life and travel cover for individuals involved in dangerous sports and pastimes. “There’s not many risks that cannot be covered, provided the activity is itself within the law,’ said a spokeswoman for the company, adding: “The rate we can get depends on the varying levels of re-assurance used by the companies we go to.”
Sports Activity Travel Insurance aims its products directly at those who wish to indulge in sports while on holiday. These activities can range from such extreme sports as bungee jumping and sky diving to more standard pastimes, such as golf or windsurfing. Cover can cost over 50-per-cent more than a standard policy, but when even a minor injury can cost £500 for treatment and a major injury can result in a bills for many thousands, the public should be made more aware of the need to carefully check their levels of cover and act accordingly.
Specialist health insurer Unum takes into account not only the nature of the sport, but also how the activity is conducted. Colin Young, the company’s underwriter, commented: “If it is motorised hang-gliding we want to know they’ve got a pilot’s licence. If it’s parachuting we’d want to know it is being conducted within a properly organised club.”
However, while addicted enthusiasts know the ropes and how to go about getting cover for dicing with death, albeit at often-stratospheric premiums, it is the ordinary holidaymaker who can all too easily come unstuck. Before renting a holiday resort moped, jet ski or skidoo, travellers should dig deep into the small print of their travel insurance policy to ensure the particular activity is covered.
Before renting a holiday resort moped, jet ski or skidoo, travellers should dig deep into the small print of their travel insurance policy to ensure the particular activity is covered
One Internet blogger said: “I think it is fair to say that most holidaymakers would not consider jet skiing to be an adventure sport. I myself was allowed to jump on a jet ski in Barbados with my brothers. We were given no lessons and our only protection was our life jackets.” The blog continued: “It was only on returning to the hotel that I discovered to my horror that our Direct Line trawl insurance policy did not cover us. It was a daunting paragraph to find tucked away on a page of already overly small and wordy print.”
It’s the diversity of just what cover is offered as standard and, too often, the lack of an opportunity to add extra risks at an additional premium that is upsetting many consumers.
Travel agent Vince Cutting, of London-based Dulwich Travel, commented: “There’s a totally bewildering divergence between insurers when it comes to deciding which sports truly are dangerous and which can be covered as standard. Surely, if underwriting really was based on accident statistics rather than purely arbitrary decisions then all the insurers would be including or excluding much the same list of activities.” He added: “Consumers would then be able to make an informed decision on whether or not they needed to seek wider cover.”