It couldn’t happen to me – Drowning deaths in BC

Ash Munri & Ahmadullah Rahmat, Sierra Simpson, Emily Vance, Ben Ronald,
/ Dec 7, 2018

(Photo: Michael Panes)

Overall, drowning statistics in Canada are trending down. Since 1994, British Columbia has seen a reduction in drowning by just over a third – down from 155 deaths annually in 1994 to 55 in 2018.

What’s striking about drowning, however, is that most of the time, it’s preventable. Dr. Ian Pike is the Co-executive Director and Spokesperson for The Community Against Preventable Injuries. He says that people often ask him why his work focuses on drowning. There are so many other statistics – why target an issue that affects a relatively low percentage of the population?

Because he says, death by drowning is a fate that is almost entirely preventable.

Initially, we began research under the premise that BC had a disproportionate amount of drowning deaths relative to its population. This is still true. However, the factors we didn’t consider, that our experts pointed out, were that this statistic was most likely a function of a longer water recreation season, and a greater overall culture of water recreation in the province.

Despite this rationalization of what initially seemed to be an alarming statistic, we still managed to delve deep into the core of what is a very preventable group of fatalities.

We made discoveries and raised questions along the way – ones that speak to and are a direct result of our human nature: Why do we drown? Why do young males drown more than any other sub-sect of the population? What makes us feel as though drowning is something that happens to other people, and not to ourselves? How can concerned parties reduce drowning rates, and what can federal/provincial governments do to help?

Why do people drown?

In Dr Pike’s words, for three reasons.

1) People typically enter the water unintentionally. They didn’t intend to go in there – and therefore they’re not prepared, typically they’re not dressed appropriately, they’ve got normal street clothing on and that is a problem because it becomes waterlogged, it becomes heavy.

2) They’re not wearing floatation devices, whether it’s a lifejacket or a PFD.

3) Quite often we know that they’ve been drinking alcohol. All of those factors are key components in why people struggle in the water and are unable to survive and ultimately drown.

Who drowns?

Drowning occurs across all populations. When we spoke with Rob Sutherland of the Shuswap Search and Rescue, he said they respond to calls from people of all walks of life – “everyone from young kids to grandmas… There’s no gender- it’s everybody.”

Although drowning can happen to anyone, the numbers reveal interesting specifics.

(Photo: Alana Attew / Graphic: Ben Ronald)

Drowning victims are overwhelmingly male, and those between the age of 19 and 29 are at the highest risk. Dale Miller of the Executive Director of the BC & Yukon branch of the Lifesaving Society, he says that this has to do with risk-taking behavior prevalent in young men.

“Certain brain-development facts (…) show there is a yearning for that thrill seeking adventure at that age. Oftentimes that will overcome the common sense part of the brain (…) a lot of young males feel that it won’t happen to them.” – Dale Miller

(Photo: Michael Panes / Graphic: Ben Ronald)

The “it won’t happen to me” complex

Dr Pike and Dale Miller both mentioned a common theme – that most people know drowning exists, but they think it won’t happen to them.

“The Lynn Valley cliffs are very popular for jumping and diving into the water during the summer. You can see situations where someone has died from that, and the next day, if not a couple of hours later, you’ve still got other jumpers there. So even the reality of the fatality does not seem to hit home.” – Dale Miller

Dr Pike illustrated this with an anecdote that he says happens all the time. Parents will require their children to wear PFDs – but won’t wear one themselves. He says this is true even when parents don’t know how to swim.

A deeper dive – correlations to psychology

Most striking was the sense of invincibility that leads people to risk taking. The “it won’t happen to me” complex that both Dr Pike and Dale Miller mentioned. A Psychology Today article mentions the optimism bias as an explanation for this invincibility complex. In an article entitled “The Optimism Bias,” Tali Sharot says that this is “one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.”

Basically, the optimism bias means that we overestimate the likelihood of positive events happening to us, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. This pattern of thinking coincides exactly with what Dr Pike and Dale Miller were describing.

“While people believe injuries are an inevitable part of life (…) they also believe it ain’t going to happen to me. No one expects to be injured. No one expects when they’re in a boat, or in or around the water, that they’re going to end up in the water, in trouble.” – Dr Ian Pike

An understanding of the optimism bias helps illustrate what Dr Pike describes. One study from another journal goes further, speaking of the effects of dopamine to inflate the optimism bias. The more dopamine in the brain, the more likely people are to downplay the possibility of a negative event.

Since alcohol increases the production of dopamine (brief explainer on dopamine) – it’s no wonder that drinkers have an increased risk tolerance, and are more prone to drowning in boat-related/recreational settings.

Combine this with the propensity for risk-taking seen in younger men, and it helps to explain that interplay between the two largest drowning factors for young adults: not wearing a PFD (88% of deaths) and drinking alcohol (41%). One thinks that they don’t need to wear a PFD (it won’t happen to me!), they have a couple drinks, and engage in behaviour that’s riskier than they normally would. Even though their risk is going up, their perception of the risk isn’t.

“It can happen, it can happen in a moment. So the first thing that we have to do, we have to address this attitude of inevitability, and people’s belief that it’s not going to happen to them.” – Dr Ian Pike

Tackling the complex

Beyond his general work with Preventables, Dr Pike has spent the last ten years researching how to change dangerous attitudes in a very specific sub-sect of the population – recreational boaters. Dr Pike says this is the community at the most risk on the waters – those who boat recreationally, in interior waterways. Out of all the activities, boating is the leading cause of drowning in BC – with 21.8% of deaths by drowning from 2008-2016.

Dr Pike’s work attempts to meet people where they’re at. Their organization’s outreach takes the form of specific reminders in the time and place where the risk is the highest. He says that people often know what they should be doing – they just need a gentle reminder.

Their social marketing campaign has put safety message reminders on all kinds of props. Beach towels laid out on shore-fronts, messages wrapped around ice chests, and even pasted on the bottom of an overturned boat in a scene that makes it look as though someone has capsized. The reminders say “you probably didn’t think you were going to drown today.”

The idea of constant reminders is is a similar strategy to one used by Waterway Houseboats on the Shuswap Lake in BC’s interior, a popular destination for tourists, and the second deadliest lake in BC for drownings. Guest Services Manager Sharon Thompson says that in addition to safety orientation videos and tours of the houseboat for those in charge of the vessel, a lot of the safety outreach her team does is via radio throughout the day.

“While they’re out there, they’re constantly reminded. And that really helps. Just refreshing their memories. Like I said, I have the team doing announcements throughout the day, just making sure that everybody’s safe, and we tell them what to do. All precautionary things.” – Sharon Thompson, Waterway Houseboats

Not all guests on houseboats are required to complete safety orientations. Only the captain, co-captain, and the security card holder are oriented. From then on, these are the leaders of the group- and they sign legally binding contracts that make them responsible for the well-being of their party. Ultimately, Sharon says that “it’s up to the individual and the choices they make.”

Going forward

Dr Miller is the Executive Director of the BC & Yukon branch of the Lifesaving Society. The Lifesaving Society collects key statistics related to drowning, and certifies all BC’s lifeguards.  He believes that more can be done in terms of education, and that water safety should be an essential component of public school education.

“We do feel that if we were able to provide that Swim to Survive campaign and training to grade three and grade seven children throughout the province, we could cut BC drownings by 50%. That has been proven in other jurisdictions. … We do think that this is something that the provincial government should be aware of, and assisting with.” – Dale Miller

This used to be the case – according to Miller, the provincial government used to allocate funds through the BC gaming branch.

“Many years ago … it was part of school board training. It was part of school board’s budget to provide grade five swim lessons. That has disappeared and we really do think that’s something that’s essential for children. Just as its essential to have physical activity, road safety, swim safety,  fire safety, and water safety.” – Dale Miller

Filling the gaps

Rob Sutherland is the Station Leader at the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue – Station 106. They service the Shuswap and Mara Lakes in interior BC. Although houseboating on the Shuswap has been popular for some time, their unit was only formed in 2012. They rely entirely on grant funding and donations to keep their unit running. During the water recreation season, which stretches from May long weekend to September long weekend, they have anywhere from 20-25 volunteers on-call, patrolling the thousand miles of shoreline on the Shuswap lake and responding to rescue calls.

In addition to their water safety patrols, they also conduct public outreach on water safety. That includes going into elementary school classrooms to teach water safety, and running a junior component of their team where they allow 16 and 17 year olds to participate in the same training that the team does. That covers formal marine skills, first aid, navigation, and leadership training.

In the six years that their volunteer organization has been patrolling the lake, the number of rescue calls they’ve responded to has come down significantly. Initially, the RCMP and BC Ambulance had requested a Search and Rescue unit to deal with the 30-50 rescue calls they responded to each season. This year, Rob says they responded to 26. He thinks it’s a direct result of the time and energy that his team has put in.


Drowning deaths in British Columbia appear to be trending the right direction. Despite an uptick this past year, fewer and fewer British Columbians are dying due to preventable drowning deaths. Education and awareness appear to have helped the numbers move in the right direction.

When governments are unwilling or unable step in and fill gaps in safety policy, it’s up to people. The actions of individuals and individual organizations have been a major factor in decreasing the rate of drowning deaths in British Columbia. But if human psychology is a factor, we may never see the number of preventable drownings reduced to zero.