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S1/2010Y Deaths by Drowning in Finland 1.4.2010–31.3.2011

On 8 March 2010, the Accident Investigation Board launched a safety study, to gather information on the deaths by drowning that occurred during a single year. The reference period was 1.4.2010–31.3.2011. In practice, the work was somewhat broader-based, since in order to identify deaths by drowning as such, all water-related deaths must be investigated. The total number of reported incidents was 329, of which 228 (69%) were considered accidental deaths. Some 73 (22%) of the incidents were classified as suicides, 17 (5%) as natural deaths due to disease, and 8 (2%) as suspected homicides or cases of the victim being forced into water. The cause of three deaths (1 %) remained unclear.

Although the investigation focused on accidental deaths, the data collected also enables the study of other groups, such as suicides. A total of 213 (93 %) accidental deaths were caused by drowning. Other accidental deaths were due to causes other than drowning, including various injuries, hypothermia and intoxication.

The three main categories of accidental, water-related deaths occurring during the reference period were swimming-related accidents (32%), boat-related accidents (30%) and slipping, falling and stumbling into water (25%). Most swimming-related accidents related to spending time in shore water and to swimming distances of dozens of metres at most rather than swimming for exercise, for example. Similarly, the majority of boat-related accidents were unconnected to actual boating, but occurred close to the shore while operating a small boat. The fourth largest group consisted of people breaking through ice (7%), half of whose cases did not involve a vehicle. Totalling slightly over 6 per cent, the remaining incidents involved entering water in a vehicle (including bicycles), diving or were bathtub drownings.

Most accidental deaths took place in lakes in which 110 (48%) people died during the reference period. A total of 51 deaths occurred in sea areas, 22 in rivers, 14 in ponds and 5 in indoor pools. The remaining 26 persons died in various smaller bodies of water such as ditches, brooks and bogs, and bathtubs. Three out of five (59%) people who accidentally died were under the influence of alcohol. Most deaths occurred in the age groups between 50 and 79 years. Of those who died by accidental drowning, 195 (85%) were male. Less than ten people under 18 years of age died an accidental, water-related death during the reference period. Eight of these were aged 0 to 12.

The number of drownings has fallen since the beginning of the 1950s, when the annual number was over 500. However, with around two hundred drownings per year, the current situation can still be considered a problem. Single measures for improving the overall situation are difficult to identify, because there are several ways of drowning (swimming, boats, slipping into the water, falling into ice). The aim should be to improve the situation through several means, executed simultaneously.

In almost all situations, high personal ability to function, the right equipment and a safe environment provide the best means of safety when close to water. Where these conditions are not in place, people should consider avoiding water. Many issues which are harmless on dry land can lead to death if they occur on water. Even in crowded beach environments, third parties do not have the full range of rescue options.

Concrete targets for reducing the number of deaths by drowning should be presented at the highest level of the state administration. In addition, an organisational model should be created which would permit previously fragmented work to be performed in a broad-based, effective manner. Since preventive work needs to be based on sufficient information on the issue to be prevented, improvements are required in data acquisition related to deaths by drowning.

Blood alcohol limits during boating should be tightened and surveillance of small lakes increased. Since most boat-related drowning accidents are related to small rowing boats, these too should be covered by alcohol limits. Additionally, use of flotation garments should be compulsory for rowing boat users, possibly through means such as regulatory guidelines.

Good swimming skills increase the chance of escaping various dangerous situations in water. Swimming instruction at schools should therefore be improved so that all capable of learning to swim do so while still at primary school. Ability to swim could be ensured during military service.

To improve safety communication, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) should be permanently tasked with the distribution of safety information and production of various reviews, as part of its public service remit. Related themes, such as safety on water, should be chosen on the basis of the magnitude of the problem in question, its estimated effects and topicality.

S1/2010Y Report (pdf, 3.92 Mt)

Published 8.7.2010