Tag Archives: Horror

How We Die: Drowning Edition

It is the time of year that we talk about drowning. I’m focusing here on the US, and for the most part, recreational drowning, as opposed to being drowned in a flood. Also, I’m using mainly information from Minnesota as an exemplar. It turns out that analyzing drowning data, and social behavior related to drowning, at the state level (as a proxy for the media market level) is important, because, I contend, the likelihood of a child drowning in a given media market is roughly inversly proportinate to the number of children who have drown or nearly drown in that same media market over the previous two years.

Note that the statistics keepers distinguish between accidental drowning related to boats and accidental drowning not related to boats, so keep that in mind.

Last month, we had one of those deadly weekends in Minnesota, where a bunch of people died or were injured because they were playing with boats. That happens every few years, and suddenly, people start getting more careful with boats, and then there are fewer accidents for a few years. I imagine that this is happening separately in every news market. A bunch of boat accidents happen, everyone who listens to that local news finds out, people get careful in that news market for a few years. Meanwhile, elsewhere, nobody gets the cue so nobody gets a clue.

Around that time, by the way, we had a near-death experience out in front of the cabin, but everything turned out OK because of the quick and effective action of one of the boaters. But it was a close call.

Then, over the last several days, a whole bunch of people died or nearly died from drowning around here. One was a homicide, so that does not count as accidental recreational drowning. One person died at the beach but apparently of non drowning related causes, but since it was at the beach people will associate beaches with danger (in this case, it was being about 90 years old, outside, during a heat wave, that did her in, most likely). But one adult and several children were pulled from under the water, non-responsive, and a few of them lived but most of them did not live.

So, like I said, it is time to talk about drowning a bit.

The most important things you need to know about drowning is this: People who are drowning don’t look like they are drowning. They don’t say “help help” and they don’t stick their fingers up in the air, indicating how many times they’ve gone down, like in the cartoons.

If you are lucky, they simply slip away into the water and die. I say lucky because maybe, since you see them slip under water, you can figure out that they are not just rinsing their hair, but are in trouble, and you can react. But you probably won’t because you won’t think they are drowning.

If you are unlucky, the drowning is simply not visible to anyone and you find the non-responsive probably deceased person at a later time.

The second thing you need to know about drowning is that nine out of ten adults present during the drowning of a child claim to have been carefully watching the children at the time one of the carefully supervised children died from drowning. While being carefully supervised.

Put together, this means that people generally think they know what they are doing to prevent drowning, but don’t. (Or to some extent, one simply can’t prevent a drowning in many cases, an idea that 100% of people will not likely accept even if it is true.)

As is the case with so many areas of life, people have a higher opinion of their own abilities than they should. They firmly believe that they won’t let something happen, but this Strong Sense of Won’tness (SSW) does not in fact give them knowledge or ability, or change the plain reality that certain accidents will happen.

This is why public pools empty out every hour or so. Everybody out of the pool. Check for bodies. If there are no bodies, you can all go back into the pool. Even professional life guards who generally do, probably, know what they are doing, don’t trust themselves.

I have no advice to offer you about this, other than STAY AWAY FROM ALL WATER ALL THE TIME!!!11!!

I know, that is not helpful advice. My role here is not to teach you what to do about water safety. It is to scare you into realizing that whatever you are doing now is insufficient, and you need to do more. Seek expertise.

There is a third thing you need to know which may actually be the first thing. I don’t care what you do, but any kids you have with you on or near the water need to be wearing a life vest. Wearing. Not just having one nearby. Not only wearing it when they are in the water, but when they are on the boat or on the dock, etc. At least one recent drowning or near drowning this year in Minnesota, and several over the last several years, involved a kid falling into the water, not being in the water to play.

Also, the life vest should fit properly. If you can pick the kid up by the life vest, that’s a good sign. If you try to pick the kid up by the life vest and the kid slips through, check your SSW because you’re doing it wrong.

The overall rate of death generally and in Minnesota in particular has gone down over time. See the chart:


This is attributed to a number of factors, including safer equipment and advanced rescue and trauma care. But if you look at the chart, you’ll see two other patterns. One is the effect of a series of state wide and national boating and water safety regulations and laws, mainly beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but with important events as recently as 2005.

This is why Libertarians suck, by the way.

Second, notice the up and down wiggle in the data. That is what we expect for random data, or in this case, data that has a steady long term trend, but within that trend, internal variation that isn’t of any special interest.

But it is of interest, potentially. At least two, I suspect more, of the more recent peaks followed by lows are likely related to the process I mentioned above. In 2005 or thereabouts, there was an alarming number of drownings in the state, and this lead to new legislation, and I assume, general awareness that water can kill you and yours. In 2011 and 2012 there were some dramatic and horrific events involving boats and human bodies, drunk people acting like idiots and killing innocent bystanders in a most gruesome manner, etc. One of the 2011 events re-entered the regional consciousness in 2012 because it was written up again in time for summer, to remind people. I’m pretty sure people started being more careful again just because of the overall horror of high speed multiple death boat accidents.

Notice the uptick in 2015.

That uptick is due, in part, to a larger number of individuals (though just a few, these numbers are all generally pretty small on an annual basis) going through the ice. It is possible that an increase in death or injury from falling through ice in recent years will keep the line, much reduced from the middle of the 20th century, steady. The thin ice is, of course, a result of global warming, but death on the ice is not. That is just stupidity. All the ice is measured and often marked. It is impossible to die on the ice in Minnesota without being an idiot, or being a child being driven around by an idiot.

Check this out:

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 12.29.21 PM

Most people who drown in Minnesota drown in lakes, with rivers being second. But, if you know Minnesota, look at this graphic until the strange fact it demonstrates becomes apparent.

There are very few rivers in Minnesota. Most of the water is lakes, most of the recreation is on lakes. And, when you recreate on a river, like the Mississippi river, it is almost always in what is locally known as a “basin,” a part of the river that is exactly like a lake, owing to a dam downstream.

The apparent and interesting fact is that when Minnesotans go near a River, they die!

Well, not exactly, but… I think most Minnesotans have very little direct exposure to rivers, and know little about river safety. Rivers are, in fact, extremely dangerous. They are way more dangerous than lakes. I suspect that if the right data could be obtained, it would be possible to demonstrate that Minnesota rivers take a disproportionate share of Minnesotans to watery graves, adjusting for how much time is spent on or in them, compared to regions of the country where there are lots of rivers and relatively few lakes.

Swimming and drowning is a racial justice issue, it turns out. African American kids, and Latino kids, but to a somewhat lesser extent, have on average relatively little experience or training in swimming. And, also, have dramatically higher risks of drowning. Way higher. Swimming while black is probably double or triple the risk, for death, as swimming while white. There has been recent effort to address this problem, which is mostly one of access to swimming places and swimming lessons, two things that are matters of privilege. Putting this another way, the “white – black – latino” data show up so starkly because that is how morbidity and mortality data are collected, but really, this is matter of socio-economic status.

When out it the water, keep an eye on each other, and obey the safety rules. If you don’t know what the safety rules are, step away from the water!

Helpful and interesting resources:

<li><a href="https://www.minnpost.com/health/2016/06/how-often-do-people-drown-minnesota">How often do people drown in Minnesota?</a></li>
<li><a href="http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html">Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts</a></li>
<li><a href="https://www.minnpost.com/learning-curve/2014/02/few-pools-little-swim-teaching-minneapolis-issue-equity-and-safety">Few pools, little swim teaching: In Minneapolis, an issue of equity and safety</a></li>
<li><a href="http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/boatwater/statistics.html">MN DNR Drowning Stats</a></li>
<li><a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6319a2.htm">Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Fatal Unintentional Drowning Among Persons Aged ?29 Years — United States, 1999–2010</a></li>
<li><a href="http://rockcenter.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/07/25/12948839-olympic-swimmer-on-mission-to-reduce-drowning-deaths-among-african-americans">Olympic swimmer on mission to reduce drowning deaths among African-Americans</a></li>
<li><a href="http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2012/07/15/dnr-pushes-life-jacket-safety-after-increased-drownings/">DNR Pushes Life Jacket Safety After Increased Drownings</a></li>