A drowning death is not just a statistic; it is a tragedy, for the individual, their family, friends and all who are affected by the incident. However, attitudes to swimming that bear very little relation to the actual risk do nothing to help keep people safe. The facts show that the chance of drowning when swimming is very low in the UK. According to drowning figures collected by the National Water Safety Forum, in the UK 277 people drowned accidentally in 2021, and just over 20% (61) of these were swimming. This can be set against the several million people we know swim outdoors each year, most of them many times a year.
We sometimes hear it said that swimming is dangerous and that people should keep out of open water in order to stay safe. But this is not true. While everyone wants to prevent drownings, giving a misleading impression does nothing to help, and could prevent doing more effective things to avoid harm from the risks of open water. The Outdoor Swimming Society gives swimmers information so that they can be responsible for their own safety. The key national safety organisations collect the statistics and focus their campaigns on those at most risk.
In this post OSS Inland Access Officer Imogen Radford analyses the statistics to suggest that swimming is very low risk, considers the impact of the misleading impression that it is otherwise, and outlines better ways to campaign to keep people safe, including providing safety info and targeting those most at risk with relevant messages.
Statistics on the number of people drowning in the UK show that swimming would be classed as a very low risk when you take into account (1) the numbers and the proportion of those drowned that were swimming, set against (2) the number of swims we can estimate people do each year, and (3) view this on a scale of risk levels.
(1) Numbers, proportion swimming: Drowning statistics are collected and published by the National Water Safety Forum each year in the WAID database. In 2021 (the latest data) in the whole of the UK 277 people drowned accidentally, and 61 (22%) of these were swimming. In England 41 drowned swimming, also 22% of the total. The detail in the report shows what people were doing, where they drowned and other information. Out of the total, 96 (35%) were walking or running, the activity most likely to lead to accidental death by drowning.
(2) The number of swims: We need to have an idea of the number of people who swim unsupervised in open water, and how often. Swim England say that 4.35 million people swim in open water each year in England, based on 2017-18 sources. This is several years ago and anecdotally swim groups have seen a massive increase in interest in outdoor swimming, so there are probably many more than this. Outdoor Swimmer magazine’s annual survey, ‘Trends in Outdoor Swimming’ (link downloads PDF 3.3 mb), can be used to get a rough idea of how often people swam in 2021. About 30% of those surveyed go wild swimming occasionally, 20% several times a week and 30% weekly or fortnightly. Using a figure of 5 million people (which is probably a bit low) and assuming that they do so in these proportions we can calculate that approximately one in 50,000 of wild swims in England each year might end in a drowning death.
“It is a fallacy to say that because drowning is a serious matter that there is therefore a serious risk of drowning. In truth the risk of a drowning was very low indeed …[They made] the common but elementary error of confusing the seriousness of the outcome with the degree of risk that it will occur.”
High Court judge in the Tomlinson case
(3) On the scale of risks reproduced in an article by the British Medical Journal, ‘Understanding Risk’, that proportion would be classed as very low risk. Put another way, just under 5 million swimmers, doing perhaps 270 million swims a year, do so without drowning in the UK each year.
The chart prepared by RoSPA illustrates a comparison of fatality rates for water-related and every day activities set against the numbers taking part. It shows outdoor swimming a long way down the list (page 15, ‘Managing Safety at Inland Waters’, 2019.
Deaths of outdoor swimmers by drowning have a tragic impact on the lives of those affected, and they are uncommon, so it is not surprising that we hear about them in the media. It is hard to understand why outdoor swimming is singled out and portrayed as especially dangerous, though.
We appear to have a cultural ‘fear’ of open water in the UK, from ancient folklore about Jenny Greenteeth dragging people under the water to public information videos in the 1970s showing the Grim Reaper taking unwary swimmers.
Every summer we see calls for people not to swim in open water, accompanied by warnings that they might die if they do so, when no one would say this to those running, walking, angling or boating – all ranked as relatively more risky activities.
It is even suggested that the increase in the number of drowning deaths over the past two years (after a previously downward trend) is because of the increase in wild or outdoor swimming. But the proportion of those drowning that were swimming remains at about 1/5 over this period, and the largest group of those that drowned continue to be those running or walking. Hotter summers and more people getting involved in a whole range of outdoor activities, more locally, means that more people are out near water, making it unsurprising that the number has increased. Singling out unsupervised swimming for blame does not make sense.
This approach doesn’t work. People will want to swim especially in a hot summer, and it is not easy or necessarily right to stop them. An organisation or a landowner that takes a no swimming stance cannot give any information about staying safe as that would contradict their policy. They might spend time, effort and money on measures to stop people swimming, instead of giving out constructive information. If they give inaccurate information, such as ‘the water is freezing’, which is easily found to be untrue by those getting into the water in summer, they will lose any credibility to warn about hazards that pose a real risk.
“Of course there is some risk of accidents arising out of the joie de vivre of the young. But that is no reason for imposing a grey and dull safety regime on everyone.”
High Court judge in the Tomlinson case
Drowning prevention campaigns use the statistics to be more targeted to those at most risk, and swimmer groups seek to rebuild skills, confidence and social norms around safe swimming.
The Outdoor Swimming Society focuses on swimmers taking responsibility for their own safety and understanding how to keep themselves safe. It publishes information on many aspects of safety and swimming under the Survive section of its website and elsewhere. It tells the story of outdoor swimming and seeks to normalise it (after decades of it being seen as outlandish, unsafe, not allowed), as do numerous local informal swimmers groups. Its Inland Access Group provides support, resources and a network to those interested in improving swimming access for inland waters – because more places to access means more opportunities for people to learn how to swim outdoors safely and to enjoy doing so.
Many organisations are working on preventing drowning, including the key safety organisations under the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF), whose strategy includes increasing awareness of everyday risks in, on and around water. Their principles for managing water-related risks (link downloads PDF) include looking at who is at risk, what the risks are and how to balance reducing them with the benefits of access to water. Campaigns such as #RespectTheWater, #EnjoyWaterSafely and #DrowningPreventionDay run by NWSF and its members focus on those most at risk and are relevant to the season, including avoiding falling into water, the risks of alcohol and water, and what to do if you or someone else is in trouble in water (See https://www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk/respectthewater; https://www.rlss.org.uk/Pages/Category/dont-drink-and-drown; https://www.nationalwatersafety.org.uk/drowningpreventionday).
The Local Government Association has produced a water safety toolkit with the steps councils should consider when looking at water safety in their local area, building on the NWSF principles of considering who is most at risk and targeting actions.
National campaigns recognise that swimming is not a dangerous thing to do, though not all locally led media and messaging has caught up. Some local authority and local police and fire and rescue services still put out the ‘stay out of open water to stay safe’ message, but this is beginning to change in line with advice from their national bodies and NWSF, and many now give practical and useful information.