Unintentional drowning deaths in Australia dropped by 28% in the twelve years to 2020, with the Australian Water Safety Strategy playing an important role in saving lives, according to a new study.
The research published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health comes as the United Nations has passed its first ever Resolution on Global Drowning Prevention, calling on all nations to collect and analyse drowning data, and to co-ordinate and develop water safety plans.
Progress made, but but still a way to go
This study analysed the progress made throughout the period of the Australian Water Safety Strategy 2008-2020, which set an aspirational target of reducing drowning by 50%.
Tasmania, South Australia, and New South Wales have recorded the biggest reductions overall, while Queensland halved the rate of child drowning. These drops coincided with legislative changes, including the introduction of pool fencing legislation and associated enforcement.
Joint lead author and Royal Life Saving Society Australia CEO, Justin Scarr, said even though the reductions were short of the 50% reduction target, they were significant.
‘While this study indicates that support in the form of funding, legislative change and public education may have contributed to significant reductions in drowning over the period, most notably in the reduction of drowning among young children, there is more to be done,’ he said.
‘We know from previous research that the introduction and strengthening of pool fencing legislation and associated enforcement regimes contributed to a halving of the child drowning rate in swimming pools in Queensland,’ said Mr Scarr.
‘Victoria had the lowest drowning rate at the baseline, and they lowered that further. This may be due, in part, to legislative changes to mandate lifejacket use on small boats, which were found to have had a significant impact in reducing drowning deaths,’ said Justin Scarr.
‘Similarly, Tasmania has longstanding legislation mandating wearing lifejackets on boats less than six metres in length and NSW has introduced legislation aimed at ensuring rock fishers wear lifejackets at high-risk locations.’ he said.
‘There is scope for States and Territories to learn from each other’s experiences and implement legislation which has proven to be effective in other places in Australia,’ concluded Mr Scarr.
Australia showing the way
Joint lead author, Dr Amy Peden, Lecturer, School of Population Health, UNSW Sydney said Australia is a world-leader in drowning prevention.
‘Australia is leading the way through its cohesive approach to drowning prevention, with the sector collaborating under the Australian Water Safety Strategy, to push for the same outcome, to save lives and see a nation free from drowning,’ Dr Peden said.
‘While it is pleasing to see strong reductions in river drowning deaths, a 34% reduction against the baseline, rivers and creeks remain the leading location for unintentional fatal drowning in Australia,’ she said.
‘It is vital that we all respect the river and continue to invest in community-led interventions addressing river drowning risk,’ said Dr Peden.
This research was undertaken to identify areas the new Australian Water Safety Strategy needed to focus on to bring the toll down even further.
‘This study has signposted several areas of focus, including a need to refocus drowning prevention efforts among older people in light of an ageing population,’ said Justin Scarr.
‘We hope that drowning rates continue to reduce with future Australian Water Safety Strategies,’ he concluded.