Put safety first around water

Given Victoria’s more than 1000 kilometres of ocean and bay beaches, 85,000 kilometres
of rivers and creeks, 588 public and commercial swimming pools, and many more backyard pools, it is no wonder that drownings are an all too often occurrence. This summer, and during the past six months, the number of such tragedies has reached record levels.

Forty-two people have drowned since July last year, including seven in the past two weeks. That is 15 more than the five-year average. During a year dominated by a virus that forced most Victorians to spend an inordinate amount of time cooped up at home, it is an added tragedy that for some, finally enjoying time outside has resulted in such terrible consequences.

Experts stress all children should know how to swim, but fewer have been turning up to lessons, even before COVID-19.Credit:Newsday

Statistics show a disproportionate number of those who drown are male, mostly the young and the elderly. Authorities are also increasingly worried about men under the age of 45 who “overestimate” their abilities. But as recent drownings have shown, it can happen to anyone, at any time, in a wide range of situations.

A Melbourne post office worker died after she was swept off a rock by a wave with three others at Bushrangers Bay on the Mornington Peninsula. A Berwick teacher died when she tried to rescue a 14-year-old girl at Venus Bay on the South Gippsland Coast. A four-year-old Doveton girl who was pulled unconscious from a lake in Melbourne’s south-east died several days later. A 58-year-old man died near Anglesea after heading out in a small boat that overturned.

Each one is a personal tragedy for family and friends, but also a wake-up call for all those who venture into or even near the water.

The complacency of many is alarming. Life Saving Victoria says its studies show only 45 per cent of people observe safety signs warning of hazardous conditions including rips, submerged rocks and dangerous sea life. Seventy-five per cent of those who died in boating accidents were either not wearing a life jacket or were wearing it incorrectly, according to Cameron Toy, the director of Transport Safety Victoria.

And while some drownings are a result of dramatic or unusual situations, recent studies with video evidence show they can happen where there is little sign of trouble; people nearby can be completely unaware somebody is struggling to stay alive. Dr Shayne Baker, a lifesaver and Royal Life Saving Australia’s education and training national adviser, says “the idea that you are going to get a clear sound, or indications, such as raising arms above the water, is wrong”.

Such incidents and the diversity of circumstances that lead to drownings make clear that there is no one solution to the problem.

But there are some self-evident ways to minimise the risk. Do a first aid course, learn water-safety techniques, including how to recognise someone in trouble and call for help, teach your children to swim, and swim only at patrolled beaches, waterways and pools. Royal Life Saving Australia chief executive Justin Scarr says if you have a six-year-old, and your child can’t swim continuously for five metres, you need to do something about it.

For many Victorians, the chance to have a COVID-free summer was a significant incentive to follow the strict lockdown rules. As a reward for the state’s success in quashing the virus, many Melburnians have fled the city to enjoy the outdoors. Let’s all ensure that the summer period offers everyone a well-earned break and does not result in another tragedy.

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