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B.C. must do more to highlight drowning dangers for young people: coroner

VICTORIA - The deaths of a three-year-old boy in a backyard swimming pool and a 17-year-old male in a lake while camping with his buddies are examples of a disturbing pattern that has prompted British Columbia's coroners' service to call for better pool safety laws and public awareness campaigns about drowning.

A child death review report by the BC Coroners Service warns that the dangers of drowning haven't sunk in with many residents, especially teenage males who think they can swim out of danger even if they've been drinking alcohol.

The review examined the cases of 35 children and youth who drowned in B.C. between 2007 and 2013. Review panel director Michael Egilson said the report concluded messages about boater safety, life-jacket use, pool safety and alcohol use aren't resonating with people.

Egilson said the report found that teenage males are particularly prone to drowning because they underestimate dangers involved in water-related activities and often overestimate their own swimming abilities.

In the case of the 17-year-old who drowned, the report said four teens were camping near their home when two of them took a night-time canoe ride without life-jackets. The water was calm, but the teens had been drinking and the canoe capsized about 10 metres from shore. Only one teen made it to shore safely.

"The coroner interviewed the friend who had been in the canoe with the victim," stated the report. "He explained that taking the canoe out on the water did not seem like a big deal because it was so calm out. He was surprised that they ended up capsized and said he had not been prepared for how cold the water was or how hard it was to swim with clothes on."

The report found that many of the messages publicly delivered by the Lifesaving Society and the Canadian Red Cross around water safety, supervision, boater safety, alcohol use, life-jacket use and pool safety were not reaching young people, especially teenage males.

Among the 35 deaths in the review, most of the victims were between 15 and 18 years old, and three-quarters were male, the report stated. Teen males are prone to underestimate the risk involved in water-related activities, and alcohol use often affects their judgment and ability to swim out of danger, the report stated.

It recommends the B.C.-Yukon branch of the Lifesaving Society start campaigns that target teenage males about safe water practices and include getting teens to take part in the campaign.

"It doesn't appear that there is a lot of water safety and drowning prevention messaging targeted specifically at young men," Egilson said in an interview.

The report called on the Canadian Red Cross to continue to stress constant parental supervision of children in and around the water.

The drowning death of the three-year-old boy occurred when the child was visiting a neighbour with his mother and ended up in a backyard pool alone.

The report said the child was playing in a room in the house, but when the mother went to check on him after about 10 minutes, he had disappeared. He was found in the pool.

"Following the young boy’s death, the coroner attended the neighbour’s home to investigate what happened," the report stated. "It was found that the child likely accessed the pool from a sliding glass door off the kitchen. The pool was fenced around three sides and the back of the house was used as a fourth perimeter."

The homeowner said he could not believe the child managed to get past all the adults in the living room and unlock the sliding glass door by himself without being noticed by anyone, the report stated.

The report will be sent to the Union of B.C. Municipalities for consideration of a provincewide pool-safety bylaw that requires four-sided fences, with self-closing and latching gates, to make pools safer.

Egilson said there are 61 B.C. communities with pool-safety bylaws, but the coroners service would prefer a uniform, provincewide pool bylaw.

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