Editorial: Drowning toll down but still too high

Last updated 13:00 17/01/2013

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OPINION: Drownings continue to mar the New Zealand summer, even though the death toll is dropping.

The high-risk Christmas-New Year period saw a comparatively low drowning toll of three, compared to an average of 10 in recent years, but several others have since lost their lives in the water in 2013.

January is statistically the highest month for drownings with an average of 18 over the last five years, as hundreds of thousands of people flock to beaches, rivers and lakes.

A young American tourist was fortunate to escape the casualty list during Nelson's deluge on Tuesday when he was swept down the flooded Waimea River.

United States visitor Steven Harper and his three travelling companions had parked their vans under the Appleby Bridge as the rain started on Monday night.

As a police officer remarked with some understatement, that was not a safe option, though many had probably got away with it in the past.

In the morning the campers were surrounded by water, and after fruitless attempts to move the vehicles, Mr Harper set off after his guitar and bag in the water, and was swept downstream.

Fortunately, he was able to get back to shore.

The incident highlights several issues - how quickly seemingly benign rivers can turn dangerous, and that treasured possessions aren't worth risking life and limb for.

It also illustrates that people are led to water, but they don't always think.

Another tourist almost drowned in Nelson Harbour last week after going for a swim off his yacht in gale-force winds, while two of the Christmas drownings at North Island beaches involved people swimming outside the flags of patrolled beaches.

There have also been a large number of close calls with tragedy averted at several beaches by the swift actions of lifeguards.

Last year 93 people drowned in New Zealand, the second lowest annual toll on record.

It continues a steady downward trend from the 1980s when an average of 180 people died a year, though our drowning rate is still the third worst in the developed world.

High-profile campaigns and a greater awareness of water safety, particularly in schools and among parents, have helped, but there is still some way to go.

Powered boating recorded the most deaths last year with 20 drownings.

A number could have been prevented by wearing lifejackets, a habit that has yet to become ingrained among boaties.

The Nelson-Tasman region had no drownings in 2012, down from six the year before.

That's an incredible result given the thousands of people that are drawn to the region's coastal waters, lakes and rivers. Long may it continue.

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Water Safety New Zealand's basic message bears repeating: Watch the weather, keep children within arms reach, know your limits, don't drink alcohol if you're swimming or boating and use the right safety equipment.

- The Nelson Mail

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