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2021/22 drowning toll the highest in more than 25 years

2021/22 drowning toll the highest in more than 25 years
September 16, 2022

New research by leading water safety authorities Royal Life Saving Society - Australia and Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) has revealed a tragic rise in drowning deaths over the past 12 months.

The year from July 2021 to June 2022 saw 339 drowning deaths occur across Australia, the highest in a quarter of a century, prompting water safety experts to issue an urgent plea to make safety a focus this summer.

The Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2022 found that there were 339 drowning deaths over the past 12 months - 15% higher than last year (295), and the highest reported figure since 1996.

Sadly, 39 deaths were flood related.

The Surf Life Saving National Coastal Safety Report 2022 found that 141 of those drowning deaths occurred along the coast, the highest number recorded by SLSA since 2004, and sadly a 16 % increase on the 10-year average.

Both organisations are concerned about the impact of flooding, people swimming at unpatrolled locations, and reported increases in drowning among older adults and in school aged children.

Disturbing trends revealed in the reports include:

  • More than 28% of all drowning 94 drowning deaths were in people over the age of 65, an increase of 34% increase on last year.
  • 15 drowning deaths occurred in children aged five to 14 years, a 7% increase on last year, and perhaps a reflection of children missing out on swimming lesson during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • SLSA reports that 49% of the coastal drowning deaths occurred more than 5km from a surf lifesaving service, a factor that may have resulted from people seeking out more secluded swimming spots.
  • Men account for 83% of all drowning. Alcohol and drugs, risk taking behaviour and men over-estimating their swimming ability are all considered key factors.
  • 39 drowning deaths were flood related, majority in the eastern states (NSW, Queensland, Victoria).

Both organisations find that the figures highlight ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on drowning risk, including Australians being more likely to visit unfamiliar, unpatrolled water locations, children lacking swimming skills necessary to enjoy the water safely due to pandemic induced lesson cancellations.

With the support of the Australian Government, Surf Life Saving and Royal Life Saving are looking at strategies ahead of the warmer months, including bringing forward water safety campaigns, delivering lifesaving services and working with governments, councils and groups across the country.

Advising that the Australian Government is determined to support organisations like Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving to raise water safety awareness, Federal Minister for Aged Care and Sport, Anika Wells commented “the increased drowning of older people is particularly distressing. Enjoying a swim has so many benefits for people of all ages. Some simple precautions, like a medical check-up to ensure you are swim fit, or going to the local swimming pool to refresh your skills is a great idea ahead of summer.

“As we prepare for summer, water safety should be top of mind. I urge all Australians to supervise children at all times around water, learn swimming, water safety and lifesaving skills, wear a lifejacket when boating, rock fishing and on watercraft and to swim at a patrolled beach between the red and yellow flags.”

Royal Life Saving Chief Executive, Justin Scarr noted “Royal Life Saving is deeply saddened by another tragic increase in drowning, with pandemic and the wet, hot weather combining to create a terrible year for drowning on waterways. This is the worst year for drowning since 1996.

“Increased drowning deaths in school aged children is tragic and may be a sign of generational impacts of lessons missed due to COVID-19. Swimming and water safety lessons are critical to child safety.

“Drowning deaths in older people, aged over 65 years, now represents 26% of all fatal drowning. We urge adults of all ages to consider the impacts of medical conditions, alcohol, and swimming ability has on their water safety.”

Surf Life Saving Australia Chief Executive, Adam Weir stated “during the 12-month period, we have sadly seen a continuation from the tragedies of the previous year which should be a concern to all.

“This year has been the worst we have experienced since collecting coastal drowning information during the past 18 years.”

Click here to view the Royal Life Saving Society - Australia National Drowning Report 2022.

Click here to view the Surf Life Saving National Coastal Safety Report 2022.

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