Researchers are breathalysing and surveying river along the Murray River at Albury this week, in an effort to find answers to the nation’s river drowning problem.

Principal investigator Amy Peden, National Manager of Research and Policy at Royal Life Saving Society – Australia and PhD Candidate at James Cook University (JCU), has been investigating drowning deaths in rivers for several years.

“The culture of drinking while swimming, boating and fishing at local rivers is a big part of the drowning problem. Understanding how commonplace drinking is, and how it influences risk taking is one of the main reasons we’re collecting this data in the field,” she said.

Justin Scarr, CEO, Royal Life Saving said the research is a world‐first and is supported by funding from the Australian Government for Royal Life Saving’s Respect the River program.

“This program is all about raising awareness of drowning risk factors and equipping everyone with the skills to enjoy our beautiful rivers, creeks and streams safely,” he said.

The Hon. Sussan Ley MP, Federal Member for Farrer, is pleased to support the program.

“This is really important research which I hope can lead to fewer deaths on inland waterways, which are still tragically over‐represented in overall drowning statistics” she said.

“The Murray is beautiful but it also hides some hidden dangers, so keep an eye on your mates and remember the messaging that alcohol and water really don’t mix.”

Ms Peden said rivers are the leading location for drowning in Australia, with an average of 74 drowning deaths per year.

Royal Life Saving research shows that for each fatal drowning, a further three people are hospitalised due to a non‐fatal drowning incident. Alcohol is known to be a major contributing factor.

“Identifying alcohol consumption patterns and attitudes towards drinking and aquatic activity are vital given the strong association between alcohol and river drowning. It’s thought alcohol consumption leads to increased risk taking, and a failure to see
dangers like snags, current and rocks until it is too late,” she said.

Ms Peden said the average blood alcohol content (BAC) of adult drowning victims in Australia is 0.20%.

“That’s four times the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle or a boat. We need to better understand why people are taking such risks,” she said.

The research is part of a range of studies conducted by Royal Life Saving and JCU examining the epidemiology, risk factors and strategies for the prevention of unintentional drowning in rivers.

Ms Peden said she hopes it will contribute to the saving of lives both in Australia and internationally as the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates drowning claims an estimated 372,000 lives per year, many in rivers in developing countries, including across the Asia Pacific region.

Research by the two organisations has already contributed to key education initiatives highlighting the risks of drinking and swimming with the release of the “Don’t Let Your Mates Drink and Drown” campaign, targeting males aged 18 to 34 years.

JCU Associate Professor Richard Franklin is the study’s supervisor and co‐investigator.

“It’s great to see this partnership tackling challenges in our backyard, especially considering the high toll river‐related drowning deaths place on regional and remote communities. James Cook University is proud to be a partner in this research which will continue to save lives, long after it’s complete,” he said.

Research will be conducted at key river drowning blackspots in both  Queensland and New South Wales across January and February, with results to be published in academic journals.

For more information on the Respect the River program please link here.