Why Don't People Listen To Water Safety Messages? Just Ask Them
January 1st, 2019 was a cracker.
Blue skies, temperatures in the 30s, and for lots of us, nothing to do except perhaps nurse a hangover.
For five people across Australia, this picture perfect sunny day would also be their last. A spate of drownings across the country marked the end for four people, and the start of trauma and grief for their loved ones.
The victims: a 45-year-old man in regional Victoria, a man in his 40s at an unpatrolled beach in Queensland, a 34-year-old man at Clovelly Beach in Sydney; a 66-year-old in Tasmania; and a 45-year-old diver pulled unconscious from the water in WA, although police say it's too early to tell if the cause of death was drowning or not.
I am a surf life saver.
On the same day five people died at beaches Australia, I was on patrol at Palm Beach, at the northern tip of Sydney. The beach was chockers, but we had pretty easy conditions, so the worst thing we had to deal with was a few bluebottle stings.
But conditions can change in an instant. There's a reason we spend half our time patrolling up and down the beach, telling people to head down to the flags, and it's not because we like the sound of our own whistles.
It's about preventative action. An ideal patrol will involve no rescues whatsoever. And yet, telling people to get out of the rips and into the flags is met with reluctance or hostility, or you're just straight-up ignored.
So what makes people continue to ignore the safety messages all around them?
Ignorance? Bravado? Sheer stupidity?
I ask my club captain, Alistair Shields, who has been patrolling for almost two decades, which one he thinks is most likely. He has a more pragmatic answer: "They just want to get into the water."
On a hot day, nothing matters more than getting from the hot sand into the cool ocean, safety be damned.
Broadly speaking, Shields thinks there's a few key reasons why people don't pay attention to lifesavers and safety messages. The first is that they're locals who reckon they know they beach well enough to make their own judgement call.
The second is they don't have trust in the lifesaver's judgement, whether that's earned or not. And the third is possible the most dangerous: people believe that because they can stand comfortable in water, they're safe.
In fact, the opposite is true. More than half of drownings occur when people are standing comfortably in the water, according to Surf Life Saving Australia.
A massive swell (pardon the pun) in sheer numbers of people flocking to the beach is also pushing people away from safety, our former club president Gordon Lang told me.
He's been patrolling Palm Beach for almost 50 years, and in the last 10 to 15 years, has seen a dramatic increase in the size of the crowds.
"In the olden days, people parked their cars near the flags," he told me.
"But if people can't get a spot, if they can't get to the regular patrolled areas, they'll go swimming in places which aren't patrolled."
Essentially: you swim where you can park.
The other issue here is that plenty of people coming to the beach these days haven't grown up with it, Lang said.
"They're used to Mediterranean beaches, or rivers, and they see flat water as the safest place to go in," he said.
"But in the ocean, the opposite is true. Flat water is a rip. They think it's a safe spot because there's no white water, and that's where you get into trouble."
In my own -- far more limited -- experience, there's a dangerous idea that things will be okay, because so often they are. I remember vividly a conversation I had last summer, with a bunch of teenagers swimming in a massive swell a long, long way from the patrolled area.
"I need you guys to move down to the flags," I told them.
"But our parents are watching from up there," one of the kids replied, waving to a house nearby.
"How are they going to save you if you get swept out?" I asked.
Drownings can happen in seconds, and the parents -- even if they were equipped to perform a rescue -- were a long way from the water. The kids saw my point, and moved down the beach.
The thing is: drownings will happen. All the safety measures in the world aren't going to stop them. And despite sometimes popular belief, it isn't mostly tourists ignorant of our oceans getting into trouble.
A new approach is needed. Money helps, of course, but so does tech like drones, smarter patrolling, and education, both to the general public and patrollers themselves, said Lang.
But most importantly, everything possible should be done to prevent rescues from being needed in the first place.
He quotes a former lifesaver from the club for me: "If you have to get wet, you haven't done your job properly."
How To Stay Safe In And Around The Water
• Where possible, swim at a patrolled beach, between the red and yellow flags • Obey the safety signs at the beach • Learn how to identify a rip current and look for rip currents before deciding where to swim • If you’re not sure, ask a lifesaver or lifeguard about the beach conditions • Wear a lifejacket while boating, rock fishing or paddling • Don’t go into or on the ocean during severe weather warnings • Take personal responsibility, think twice and assess your safety before entering the water • Supervise children at all times in, on and around water