River safety warning after more than 1000 deaths in 15 years

29 November 2018

Royal Life Saving is urging all Australians to play safe around the river this summer, after research revealed 1,087 people have died from drowning in Australian rivers, creeks and streams in the fifteen years between 1 July 2003 and 30 June 2018. 81 of these fatalities happened in Western Australia. A further 522 people are estimated to have been following a non-fatal drowning incident, many left with a permanent disability.

Research shows males are at most risk, accounting for 80% of all drowning deaths. Alarmingly, of the adult males who drowned in rivers, 56% had a contributory level of alcohol and/or drugs in their system. Royal Life Saving, with support of the Federal Government, is educating the public about inland waterway safety through the Respect the River drowning prevention program.

Lauren Nimmo, Senior Manager – Health Promotion and Research, Royal Life Saving WA said many people underestimate the dangers of inland waterways. “Australian rivers are a great place to enjoy; whether boating, swimming, or hanging out along the riverbank. We want everyone to enjoy these beautiful natural environments but to do so safely, by showing rivers the respect they deserve.”

“Don’t overestimate your ability and underestimate the dangers in rivers. Often you cannot see the dangers that exist at rivers such as cold water, strong currents, sudden changes in water depth and submerged objects like rocks and tree branches. Be prepared when you go out on the water, wear a lifejacket, avoid alcohol and drugs around water, never swim alone, and learn how to save a life,” said Ms Nimmo.

It is often incorrectly assumed that tourists account for the majority of drowning deaths, however, Royal Life Saving research reveals that 74% of people who drowned in the nation’s rivers were locals to the area, residing within 100kms of where they drowned.

Lauren Nimmo said, “Conditions in rivers can change rapidly. Just because you might regularly visit an area, doesn’t mean the environment will be the same the next time you go. Many rivers here in WA are in regional and remote locations and it’s vital to go prepared. Bring a phone, and let someone know where you are going. Make sure your first aid and CPR is up to date so you’re prepared if an accident happens. Resuscitation can make the difference between life and death.”

Jason Ballerini learnt the dangers of inland waterways firsthand when at age 16, he dived into a local waterway off the Murray River on a hot summer’s day. “I’d swum there thousands of times. It was the swimming spot every summer. There was a log that stuck out from the bank and overhung the water - that was the diving board. I dived into the water headfirst,” said Jason.

Despite having swum there “thousands of times”, that day the sandbank had shifted and Jason dived from the metre high log into 50cm of water. In an instant Jason became a C5 quadriplegic and lay underwater unable to move. Fortunately Jason was pulled to the edge of the bank and resuscitated, however Jason is now unable to walk or stand, and has no feeling from the chest down.
Jason is urging Australians not to be complacent around water.

“Things change, particularly on the river. Sandbanks move or there could be a log. You just don’t know. Be conscious, and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t take things for granted,” said Jason.
Since 2015 the Federal Government have contributed more than $4 million towards inland waterways drowning prevention initiatives with Royal Life Saving.

As part of the Respect the River program Royal Life Saving has been educating the community about the dangers of inland waterways and how to stay safe in these environments.
In the three years since Respect the River was launched there has been an 18% reduction in river drowning deaths.

Lauren Nimmo, Senior Manager – Health Promotion and Research, Royal Life Saving Society – WA said, “There has been great progress in the reduction of drowning in inland waterways over the past few years, with an 18% reduction in river drowning fatalities since the launch of the Respect the River program in 2015. With the continued support of the Federal Government we will continue to save lives across the country.”

Respect the River program initiatives include swimming and water safety programs for children in various aquatic environments, a national awareness campaign, community events, risk assessments of blackspot locations, and lifesaving training.

For more information about Royal Life Saving WA's river drowning prevention programs click the link below.

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