Drunken swimmers “a bloody tragedy”
Even if the Murray River looks calm on top, don’t blend alcohol and swimming – it doesn’t mix.
That’s the key message from Corowa Search and Rescue President Peter Wright when he learnt of research undertaken by the Royal Life Saving Society.
Two universities surveyed a total of 684 people from different creeks and rivers across the border to find out whether people, or how many, have consumed alcohol before entering the waters.
278 of the 684 people surveyed were in regards to the Murray River and a breathalyser was used to gauge if people were swimming under the influence of alcohol.
The results were alarming, with as many as one in six people under the influence while swimming and half of those above the legal limit to drive.
The study revealed that seven per cent of river users are legally drunk. That doesn’t seem like a major number, but out of 684 residents it is a possible 48 deaths caused by less reaction time and a decrease in swimming skills if caught in a rough current.
Of those people used in the study that were drinking, the average BAC level was 0.07, with one swimmer recording a BAC of 0.334 (six and a half times the legal limit for driving a motor vehicle).
“I’ve been diving voluntarily for the VRA (Volunteer Rescue Association) for the last 38 years and unfortunately my logbook is filled with tragic drownings
in the river that have been caused by people either under the influence or not having enough respect for the river,” Mr Wright told The Free Press.
Mr Wright said that despite trying to educate people from local schools about respecting the river, it’s often the visitors that aren’t from the area that aren’t aware of the dangers.
“It looks quite calm on the top but they either get into trouble because they’re not strong swimmers or they’re under the influence of alcohol and that’s a deadly combination,” he said.
“We haven’t had a bad run over the last 12 months but it’s not a matter of if, it’s just when’s the next person going to drown in the river, and it’s just bloody tragic.
“I’ve been doing this for 38 years and 95 per cent of (the deaths) are avoidable.”
While recommending people are aware of CPR and using other first aid procedures, Mr Wright suggested that being aware of the risks and not taking the chance is the best safety measure.
“It’s almost too late with drowning because there’s no first aid that can save you. Once you drown you’re dead,” he said.
“I recommend people to have the knowledge of first aid but, when it comes to the river, it’s very much about being aware prior to entering the water – that’s a more relevant message than first aid.
“If people are aware of the risks – strong currents and their own ability to swim – and they get into trouble, they need to not panic.
“I stress this when I talk to the kids at school, if you get into trouble in the river, whether you’re alcohol affected or not, if you panic, it’s quite often that the panic kills you.
“You go to swim against the current, you can’t do it, become exhausted and you drown. Over that 38 years we’ve had people drown in water that’s only just deeper than what they can stand in because they’ve exhausted themselves.
“If you get in trouble in the river just focus on keeping your head above water and go with the current because eventually you’ll come to the snag or a bank and be able to hang on.
“But in the heat of the moment and the panic that sets in in the river, it just creates a major problem for people.
“And people think it’s seasonal, well it’s not. All year long you have to be careful and we’ve even noticed fatal accidents because drunken blokes are going out driving boats in the dark while under the influence.”
The Murray River was listed as the worst river for drownings in Royal Life Saving Australia’s most recent 10-year review. It is the nation’s leading river drowning blackspot, with 72 drowning deaths in the Murray River over the last 15 years.
On Tuesday, March 7, a man was saved by two teenage life guards at Lake Mulwala.
The 19-year-old tourist from Queensland did not pay the ultimate price for being intoxicated while swimming in the water, however ramifications could have been severely worse had it not been for the bravery of the 15 and 17-year-old life guards. “It’s bloody sad,” Mr Wright said.
Royal Life Saving run CPR and first aid courses throughout the region. If people are interested in learning these lifesaving skills, please call the Royal Life Saving Riverina office on (02) 6921 7422.
For more information on the Respect the River program please visit www.royallifesaving.com.au/respecttheriver.
Statistics collected for the Murray River region.