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:

  • How often do people drown in Minnesota?
  • Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts
  • Few pools, little swim teaching: In Minneapolis, an issue of equity and safety
  • MN DNR Drowning Stats
  • Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Fatal Unintentional Drowning Among Persons Aged ≤29 Years — United States, 1999–2010
  • Olympic swimmer on mission to reduce drowning deaths among African-Americans
  • DNR Pushes Life Jacket Safety After Increased Drownings
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    Nice article Greg.

    I agree with everything, except for this tiny bit "The thin ice is, of course, a result of global warming, but death on the ice is not. "

    The ice is thin at the beginning and end of winter, every year - without regard to global warming.

    This was true in 1850 and it is true today (and every year in between)..

    The ice gets plenty thick in the middle of winter, without regard to global warming, and will for the foreseeable future.

    I do agree about the stupidity part - but stupid people will go on the ice to early or to late no matter what. That is what makes them stupid.

    RickA, no. The ice on many lakes no longer becomes thick enough to recreate on most years, or ever, compared to pre-warming; parts of lakes that used to be solid are no longer, so lakes that were previously all-OK for much of the winter now have parts that are off limits (that related to a death of a child and father recently). It is not true that Minnesota ice was think in 1850, I have no idea what that is a reference to.

    So, no, youve got the warming part wrong, and the false information you are spreading, that there is no difference between now and just a few years ago, is very dangerous and could cause people to die.

    Which makes you a pretty fucked up person, doesn't it?

    You really are a moron.

    No one has claimed that fatalities have increased. All the evidence suggests that fatalities have DECREASED. See the actual post you are commenting on here.


    Perhaps I am a moron.

    I am asking you for your source of data that says Minnesota lakes are not freezing over due to global warming.

    Presumably some lakes have a maximum ice depth of less than 2 inches (unsafe to walk on) all winter - and this is due to global warming.

    Otherwise, I don't understand your statement that thin ice is a result of global warming.

    What thin ice are you referring to?

    Welcome to another edition of the "RickA Reality Distortion Field", featuring more science denial. Today's subject: "Thick ice can form at any temperature!"

    Brought to you by a moron. An immoral moron. With no conscience.

    By Brainstorms (not verified) on 04 Aug 2016 #permalink

    RickA, that is not the point of the post, nor should it be the pointg of this comment thread. You have arrived here to spread disinformation about safety on lakes, and to deny global warming. Please don't add to that list of sins the offense of telling me to do your homework for you.

    I've written about ice on lakes in Minnesota many times. You can go and read those blog posts.


    This is pretty simple.

    Take Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota.

    Every fall, we start out from summer with zero ice to some date, when the ice is 1 inch thick, and finally, some date when the ice gets over 2 inches deep.

    The maximum ice depth is usually measured in feet.

    Every spring, we start out with thick ice and at some date, the ice has melted until it is only one inch thick, and then eventually, zero ice.

    The ice, at some point, is one inch thick in the fall and in the spring, and thicker in-between.

    This has nothing to do with global warming.

    If some idiot walks on one inch thick ice, they might fall through and drown - regardless of the year and the state of global warming.

    That is my only point.

    It seems to me that Greg is implying that global warming is preventing all lake ice in Minnesota from getting to a 2 inch depth, all winter - or at least that is how I read the sentence I quoted above.

    I do not think that is accurate and merely tried to politely point that out.

    I am not sure what conscience and morality have to do with the matter.

    Attempting to move away from the ever onerous ricka, we here in west michigan experience a number of drownings along Lake Michigan from two causes : people jumping off piers (South Haven, Grand Haven, and other towns) and the less often but enough to be noted swimmer who gets caught in a rip current.

    Well, if Minnesotans weren't so fat, then less of them would fall through the ice.

    By Kevin Stacy (not verified) on 04 Aug 2016 #permalink

    I take it that "libertarians suck" because they don't think government should mandate life vest usage?

    The question is whether or not force (ultimately including lethal force) should be used to make someone put a piece of foam on their body "for their own good".

    The State-ists justify themselves by claiming public safety, while ironically standing on the Right to Privacy in Roe v Wade ("My body, My decision", they cry). The Libertarian claims the Right to be left alone (

    We're taking negative rights and turning them into positive duties, again, under threat of great and growing force.

    States claim ownership of all wild animals, yet they do not accept liability when one strikes your vehicle (is it your vehicle if you have to register it?). It's a question of ownership. Do the States own the boats, the waterways, the very people they dictate foam devices to? Or do we own ourselves, accepting responsibility for our actions? If the State mandates all responsible behavior, why even think for oneself (Commun Core wurking on that)? Which party's labors serve the other? Who is the master, and who is the servant?

    Thank you ron, for so insightfully pointing out that all non-libertarian government entities will certainly meet all resistance to wearing life vests by sending gendarmes to hunt them down and shoot them to death if they refuse to comply.

    You wish the right to be left alone? Go crawl into a cave and isolate yourself from the society you hate so much. I think the world's societies wish the libertarian anarchists would leave them alone, too.

    By Brainstorms (not verified) on 05 Aug 2016 #permalink

    #14...that's funny. If you're against government're for anarchy...that's an easy straw man to erect, isn't it?

    "If you’re against government overreach"

    ron, you'd have to demonstrate you know what that means before you'd be taken seriously.

    @#16 Excellent point. When claiming "public safety", how can there be an overreach? There is no logical point where the State-ist will stop justifying greater government power in the pursuit of "public safety". All limits on government will be disregarded...

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”― C.S. Lewis

    @ Ron 13,

    "Ownership" requires that you be able to, and, exercise, the ability to prevent another person from using the item owned.

    We all have the ability, when it comes to our persons. If you don't exercise it, you are a willing slave.

    #15 is the expected hyperbole from someone who claims that "lethal force" will be used by authorities to ensure compliance with flotation devices.

    ron, you can have all the independence of government you wish -- just take it outside our borders. And do not try to subvert the government the rest of us are electing, funding, and benefiting from. We want it, and we don't want you to disrupt or derail it. Take your libertarianism elsewhere. I'm sure if you look hard enough, you'll find a stateless state with compatriots who share your desire to live without pesky rules of civilized society to inconvenience you or make you "feel oppressed".

    Try Somalia. (Suggest you bring your guns. There, you actually may need them. For a change. Enjoy!)

    By Brainstorms (not verified) on 05 Aug 2016 #permalink

    Here are some 20 people who were celebrating -- perhaps celebrating that there were no pesky government regulations to oppress their lives? (Regulations regarding, say, the use of flammable materials such as carpets in public establishments):

    I'm sure they'd be happy to say that their lives are better for being free from government overreach and the "torment" of those who want to enforce rules made "for their own good".

    Well, that is, if they were still alive... and if those who are still alive are even able to speak still. But hey, no busybodies there to interfere!

    C.S. Lewis would be so proud, wouldn't he?

    By Brainstorms (not verified) on 06 Aug 2016 #permalink

    I'm sure if the people who died in that fire would have been fine if they'd had guns to protect them.

    "C.S. Lewis would be so proud,"
    There aren't many people more irrelevant to what should be an intelligent conversation than C. S. Lewis.

    @21 Yes. Ban all flammable things, regulate candles on cakes! No Flammable flooring! You could have saved these people! (How do we let drunk people light tobacco products, they're handling fire?!)

    NJ considering banning coffee as a distraction to driving..."public safety uber alles" ( Thank you nanny state!

    @19 Hyperbole? Try that thought experiment. What happens if the local DNR tickets Mr. Smith for not having/wearing your PFDs (personal flotation device)? Mr Smith refuse to pay the fine. How does that escalator run? At what point does the citizen's refusal to comply become actionable by arrest / force? (Oh, sure, licenses would be revoked, perhaps liens placed on boats or Real Estate...
    We don't have debtors prisons, but if you owe the court 50 cents, consider the consequences.) When they refuse to come quietly, what happens? Hyperbole? When does the State look back at the original PFD offense and say that they've gone too far in enforcement of this?

    A) Anyone want to address the Right to Privacy hypocrisy?

    B) Anyone want to demonstrate where the State-ist limits government power instead of growing government power under the banner of "public safety"?


    "@21 Yes. Ban all flammable things, regulate candles on cakes! No Flammable flooring! You could have saved these people!"

    Yes, those people could've been saved, which you seem to feel is unimportant.

    @22...that's about as disingenuous as if I would say that with guns they would have accidentally killed everyone in a two block radius and themselves.

    @24 It's a sad story, but government regulation can't protect people from accidents/tragedies like this one. Saving people is important, but saying that government should be able to fine/imprison us "for our own good" is inappropriate. Government can't be everywhere at all times, keeping people safe (or is that what you desire, constant oversight and surveillance?), at some juncture, people have to suffer the consequences / reap the rewards of their own decisions.

    It's a sad fallacy, but "government regulation can’t protect people from accidents/tragedies like this one" and the follow-on statement/implication, "therefore we shouldn't make any attempt to try to protect them", shows an astonishing lack of character on your part.

    "... is that what you desire, constant oversight and surveillance?" No. (But you knew that.)

    "... at some juncture, people have to suffer the consequences / reap the rewards of their own decisions." And you will explain at length how it is possible to always so neatly sequester the consequences of other people's bad decisions so that innocent bystanders are never affected? Nor will any family members of the people "suffering the consequences"? (Good luck with that last one.)

    In the case of the fire in France, tell us how the bad decisions of the cafe owners did not impact the party goers who did not have anything to do with bad decision to install flammable carpets...

    Then you can follow up with explaining how the spouses & children of the dead party-goers, who were even more innocent of "bad decisions" were not negatively affected by their deaths. Please, we're waiting...

    Are you going to start by claiming that the children of the dead party-goers made a bad decision to be born to those parents, and therefore are "suffering the consequences of their own decisions"? Really?

    By Brainstorms (not verified) on 09 Aug 2016 #permalink

    @26 (You added "Bad") Decisions (+ an accident) did impact innocent people negatively, and that's not something to be celebrated. Yes, there are ripples to extended family, other families, businesses, etc. One can't sequester one's own decisions perfectly.

    Is the State-ist position that because one cannot sequester negative outcomes, that all people should be subject to burdensome regulations potentially resulting in fines/incarceration?

    As if there are never any "unintended consequences" of overreaching regulation...( )

    Keep appealing to emotion while driving people to jail and the poor house ( ) for everyone's benefit.

    Where are the answers to #23 questions A&B?

    A Carrollton mother is stunned after receiving a “warrant arrest notice” in the mail because of her tamales.

    Dennise Cruz recently found a yellow postcard from the City of Carrollton stating she needed to call the court or she could find herself in cuffs.

    “That has to be wrong. I don’t have any tickets under my name. That’s just my first reaction. Never would have I thought, tamales,” said Cruz. “To know that somebody can be arrested over that, that to me is unbelievable.”

    A few months back, Cruz decided to whip up some masa, steam up some corn husks and post on Nextdoor she was selling tamales.

    “It’s just so common. That’s why to me, I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal,” said Cruz.

    But it was a big deal and carried $700 fine with the offense.

    “When it hit me, I was like that is a lot of money,” said Cruz.

    #26 said:"
    It’s a sad fallacy, but “government regulation can’t protect people from accidents/tragedies like this one” and the follow-on statement/implication, “therefore we shouldn’t make any attempt to try to protect them“, shows an astonishing lack of character on your part."END QUOTE

    No. The sad truth is that the high minded hypocrisy that fines and incarcerates people "for their own good" is the better demonstration of "an astonishing lack of character".

    You claim that these regulations will make us all safer, you cite statistics and attempt to justify sending people tumbling in this hamster wheel of court fees and legal trouble, you build the monster, and then you decry it when it uses the power that you insisted upon it having. You play both sides of this while claiming to serve humanity in the process, when all you're doing is building more and more oppressive systems against non-violent people who are just pursuing happiness in their own lives.

    It is better to leave these people alone, actually respecting their privacy, and in the process not build the Leviathan that you State-ists simultaneously love to impose and hate to see function. On top of it all, you have the audacity to claim that people like me, who would prefer to keep this power from the oppressive Leviathan, (respecting people enough to make their own decisions) lack character.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”― C.S. Lewis