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Australian reports
  1. Ian Scott
  1. Kidsafe Australia, Suite 4, Level 1, 230 Church Street, Richmond, Victoria, Australia (tel: +61 3 9427 1008, fax: +61 3 9421 3831, e-mail: iscott{at}

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    Australian drowning prevention strategy

    “We know that over 300 Australians will drown this year. We know this because over 300 Australians drown every year. Drowning is the third largest cause of accidental death in Australia overall and in the 0–5 age group is the number one killer. And the real tragedy of drowning is that almost every drowning is preventable”. Rob Bradley , Royal Life Saving Society, opening the National Water Safety Conference, May 1998, Melbourne.

    It is little news to anyone that Australia has a problem with drowning—over the past 20 years toddler drowning in domestic pools has been a focus of prevention by injury specialists—but to date there has been no concerted action across all drowning issues. With the formation of the Australian Water Safety Council this will change.

    The council was formed in February 1998 as the result of representation to, and with the strong support of, the Federal Minister responsible for sport, Andrew Thompson. It is intended to act as a consultative forum comprising the major water safety and related government agencies and includes rescue and swim training organisations, such as the Royal Life Saving Society, Surf Life Saving Australia, AUSTSWIM, safety groups such as Farmsafe and Kidsafe, and key government associations such as the Local Government Association.

    A conference was held by the council in May to design an action plan to maximise the cooperation between water safety organisations and the various tiers of government to ensure that effective strategies are enacted that avoid duplication and maximise the impact of available effort.

    The National Water Safety Plan is intended to:

    • Identify and prioritise the major water safety issues;

    • Establish the Water Safety Standards to be applied nationally;

    • Commit to support, bolster, and improve the expertise, programs, and resources that are already operating within the system;

    • Identify and maximise organisational linkages to ensure that duplication of effort and resources are avoided and so that positive ideas and best practices are shared throughout Australia.

    The key result areas identified and addressed by the plan are:

    Water Safety Research—primarily collation of existing data and establishment of a research coordinating body;

    Management of aquatic locations—the first steps will be standards for new locations and safety audits of existing aquatic locations;

    Water safety education—focusing on coordinating efforts in schools and standards and accreditation of teachers and programs;

    Targeting of key drowning demographics—the plan sets specific areas of work for children under 5 years; traditional risk takers, males 16–35 years; rural communities; tourists; and culturally diverse communities.

    “The prize for successfully implementing this National Water Safety Plan is immense—indeed the prize is ... life itself! ... the saving of up to 300 Australian lives per year”.

    Toddler drownings

    About 70 Australian children under 5 drown each year. For every drowning death about six children are admitted to hospital because of an immersion incident, with up to 20% of these children having long terms problems. On these figures between 20 and 90 children a year will suffer brain damage as the result of nearly drowning.

    Swimming pools represent the main risk and are the location of about half the child drownings among children under 5. In the five years to 1996, 157 children drowned in home pools—30% because there was no fence, 24% where there was direct access from the house to the pool, 18% where a gate was propped open, 15% where there was a defective gate, 6% where there was a defective pool fence, and 6% where the child climbed the side of an above ground pool.

    Apart from swimming pools the 315 toddler drownings in the five years to 1996 were made up of 49 deaths in lakes and dams, 40 in baths, 20 in objects containing water, 11 in rivers, and 38 in other circumstances.

    While there has been a reduction in drowning deaths in toddlers associated with efforts to fence swimming pools and the large amount of publicity about this, there has been an upward trend recently. There were 78 deaths in 1992, 53 in 1993,40 in 1994, and in 1995 and 1996 68 in each year.

    Sources: (1) National Water Safety Conference: Papers. Melbourne: Australian Water Safety Council, 5 May 1998. (2) Australian Water Safety Council. National water safety plan: fostering cooperation and commitment in the fight against drowning. July 1998. (3) Royal Life Saving Society of Australia. Keep watch: the national drowning report, 1997 edition. Sydney.

    Speed as dangerous as alcohol

    Alcohol as a major risk factor for motor vehicle accidents and injury is well known and documented. The level of risk of accident, injury, and death rises quickly with the amount of alcohol and small increases in the alcohol level bring large increases in the risk of injury. A new Australian study has shown that relatively small increases in speed have exactly the same effect on the risk of accident and injury.1

    The Road Accident Research Unit at the University of Adelaide studied 151 cases where passenger cars were involved in crashes. By reconstructing the events associated with the crash and comparing them to other cars that had not crashed they were able to estimated that the risk of a crash doubled with each 5 kph increase in speed.

    They concluded that “speeding in an urban area is as dangerous as driving with an illegal blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Even travelling at 5 kph above the 60 kph limit increases the risk of crash involvement as much as driving with a BAC of 0.05”.

    The authors found that the majority of drivers actually drive in the speed range from 61 to 74 kph and that the risk of a crash driving at 65 kph is about the same as driving with 0.05 BAC; the risk of a crash driving at 68 kph is about the same as driving with 0.08 BAC; and the risk driving at 72 kph is about the same driving with a BAC of 0.12.

    In the light of this finding they found it incongruous that, while the risk of driving at 72 kph is about the same as driving with a BAC of 0.12, the penalty for the drink driving is a $500–$900 fine and automatic disqualification of driving license for six months but the penalty for speeding is only a $100 fine.

    Speed and stopping distance: the extra 10 kph counts!

    The Road Accident Research Unit study quoted studies showing that it takes about 1.5 seconds for a driver to react to a problem and start to brake. At 60 kph this means the car will have travelled 25 metres before the brakes are applied; at 70 kph it rises to 29 metres. Once the brakes are applied an emergency stop at 60 kph takes 24 metres and at 70 kph 31 metres. Therefore a car travelling at 60 kph requires 49 metres to make an emergency stop and a car travelling at 70 kph needs 60 metres.

    The authors note that this underestimates the importance of the extra 10 kph of speed and give the example of two cars travelling side by side, one at 60 the other at 70 kph. If a child were to step out 49 metres in front of the slower car which just manages to stop in time the faster car would still be travelling at 45 kph.

    This means that the extra 10 kph would mean the difference between no accident and one where the child was hit by a car travelling at 45 kph.


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