Drowning deaths in Australian rivers, creeks and streams: a 10 year analysis

Drowning Rivers Alcohol Australia

Executive Summary

This report details the number of drowning deaths in Australian rivers, creeks and streams across the last 10 financial years and the circumstances around those deaths. Rivers have consistently been the aquatic location with the highest number of drowning deaths in annual Royal Life Saving National Drowning Reports and subsequent Australian Water Safety Strategies have highlighted the importance of reducing drowning deaths in rivers in order to achieve a 50% reduction in all drowning deaths experienced in Australia by the year 2020. A review of drowning deaths allows for patterns to be identified and evidence-based strategies for drowning reduction can be developed.

Data on all known drowning deaths in rivers across the last 10 financial years (1 July 2002 to 30 June 2012) has been sourced from the National Coronial Information System (NCIS), State and Territory Coronial Offices and the media. It has been collated and analysed by the Royal Life Saving Society – Australia.

Between 1 July 2002 and 30 June 2012, a total of 2,965 people died as a result of drowning in Australian waterways. Of these 735 people drowned in rivers, creeks and streams, accounting for 25% of all drowning deaths experienced in Australian waterways across this ten year period.

Males accounted for 80% of all river drowning deaths across the period of this study. The male burden in river drowning deaths was most prominent in the 25-34 years age group where males accounted for 92% of all drowning deaths experienced in people in that age group.

New South Wales, as the most populous State, experienced the highest number of river drowning deaths across the 10 year period of this report, with 246 deaths or 34% of all river drowning deaths. When examining rates per 100,000 population, the Northern Territory experienced the highest average annual rate of river drowning deaths per 100,000 population, with a rate of 1.81 compared to a national annual average of 0.35 drowning deaths per 100,000 population.

The Northern Territory’s drowning rate is also over 2.5 times greater than the next closest State, Tasmania, with a rate of 0.66 per 100,000 population. The male rate of drowning in the Northern Territory was the highest of any State or Territory with a rate of 3.19 males drowning per 100,000 population. The average rates per 100,000 population for female drowning deaths in rivers across the States and Territories of Australia were highest in the Northern Territory (0.30), followed by Queensland (0.26) followed by Tasmania (0.24).

Almost three quarters (74%) of people who drowned in rivers, did so within 100kms of their home postcode. This provides strength to the argument that public awareness and drowning prevention strategies should be targeted at the local community level to ensure greatest efficacy.

The largest proportion of drowning deaths in rivers took place in areas deemed Inner Regional (29.7%). A concerning, 10% took place in areas considered to be Very Remote. By their very definition, areas deemed Very Remote are isolated from basic services such as medical services. Therefore first responder skills in CPR and

first aid are vital, as is education among those living in Remote and Very Remote areas about how to minimise the risk of drowning in rivers.

When river drowning deaths are segmented and analysed by drainage division, the North East Coast division of Queensland had the highest number of drowning deaths, with 27% of all river drowning deaths during the 10 year period of this study. This was followed by the Murray-Darling Basin (21%) and the South East Coast region of New South Wales (19%). By river system, the Murray River experienced the highest number of drowning deaths across the 10 years, followed by the Brisbane River and the Yarra River.

Falls into water were the most common activity being undertaken immediately prior to drowning in rivers (20%), followed by accidents involving non- aquatic transport (18%) and swimming and recreating (15%). Males were more likely to drown as a result of intentionally interacting with water or intentionally entering the water as a result of fishing, jumping in, undertaking a rescue and using watercraft. Females were more likely to drown in rivers as a result of unintentionally entering the water, either as a result of being swept away by floodwaters or a non-aquatic transport accident.

Summer experienced the highest proportion of river drowning deaths with 39% of the total number of deaths, followed by Spring (23%). Interestingly, Winter experienced one-fifth of all river drowning deaths (146 drowning deaths) and saw a greater number of drowning deaths than occurred in Autumn (131 drowning deaths).

Analysis of the data showed that 17% of all river drowning deaths were known to be related to flooding. The State of Queensland experienced 56% of all known flood related drowning deaths in rivers. Over half (56%) of all drowning deaths that took place in flooded rivers were as a result of either being swept in or deliberately entering floodwaters in non-aquatic transport. Further work must be conducted within the community to highlight the dangers of flooded rivers.

Indigenous people drowned at a rate of 1.58 per 100,000 population in rivers, a rate that is 4.4 times that of the general population. Almost half (46%) of drowning deaths in Indigenous Australians occurred in the 25-44 years age range. Over half of all Indigenous people that drowned in rivers (54%) were known to have a positive reading for alcohol in their bloodstream when they drowned. Alcohol was also known to be a contributing factor in 64% of all cases where Indigenous people intentionally entered floodwaters. Culturally appropriate strategies to prevent drowning in Indigenous Australians should be developed that highlight the dangers of floodwaters and alcohol consumption whilst recreating in, on or near rivers.

6Alcohol was known to be involved in 37% of all river drowning deaths. There were a further 252 cases (representing 35% of all river drowning deaths) where information on the involvement of alcohol was not available. This suggests the involvement of alcohol in river drowning deaths could be larger than currently known.

Drowning deaths known to involve alcohol accounted for almost half (49%) of all drowning deaths in the 45-54 years age group. A key issue identified during analysis of the data was the extremely large amounts of alcohol being consumed prior to drowning deaths in rivers. Half of all drowning victims whose blood alcohol concentrations were deemed to be contributory (i.e. a Blood Alcohol Content equal to or greater than 0.05g/L) had a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.2 or higher. This level of alcohol in the bloodstream is four times that of the legal driving limit.

Twenty seven percent of all river drowning victims recorded some form of drug in their bloodstream when they drowned. In just over a third of these cases, the drugs were known to be illegal, the most common of which were cannabis and methamphetamine. Of the legal drugs detected, commonly occurring types were anti-depressants, anti-convulsants and cardiovascular agents such as anti-arrythmic drugs.

The analysis of river drowning data, clearly indicates a significant issue related to alcohol consumption, in rivers across Australia. Although better reporting is required, drowning prevention strategies for rivers must include information on the risks of interacting with rivers when under the influence of alcohol, alcohol and medications and/or alcohol and illicit drugs.

Linked to the issue of medication use is the finding that 37% of all river drowning victims were known to have an underlying medical condition. Logically underlying medical conditions were more common in middle aged and elderly people with people aged 45-54 and 75+ accounting for 38% of all drowning victims in rivers known to have underlying medical conditions. Further research is required around the true contribution of underlying medical conditions to river drowning risk.

This report makes a number of recommendations aimed at expanding our knowledge of river recreational patterns and to reduce drowning deaths in Australian rivers. These include enhanced understanding of the risks of floodwaters, increased awareness and enforcement of legislative requirements regarding use of watercraft whilst under the influence of alcohol in rivers and improving CPR and first aid skills in Remote and Very Remote areas.

Further research is also required around the recreational patterns and risk profiles of river drowning black spots and improving our understanding of river user’s attitudes towards the risks and hazards present in rivers.

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