Accidental Drownings are Predictable and Preventable

Mary E. Helander, Margaret K. Formica, and Alexandra Punch

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Figure 1. Emergency medical system (EMS) 9-1-1 dispatches by hour of day:  Drowning/Diving/SCUBA Accidents (2010-2019)1

Accidental drowning is a worldwide public health issue.  It is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in the world for all age groups.2 Less frequently reported are the serious health consequences of nonfatal drownings, such as learning disabilities, memory complications, and loss of basic functioning associated with brain damage.  Non-fatal drownings are more common than drowning deaths. In the U.S., five times as many children experience nonfatal drowning incidents compared to drowning deaths.

According to national 9-1-1 dispatch data, drowning accidents peak around dinner time, with one third of all fatal and nonfatal drowning events occurring between 4 PM and 8 PM.  Alcohol/drug use and gender play a significant role in driving temporal patterns in drowning, according to indicators such as alcohol containers and drug paraphernalia found at the scene.1

Recommendations to prevent fatal and nonfatal drowning incidents and their serious health consequences include:3

  • Avoid alcohol and drug use while recreating near water.
  • Supervise children and weak swimmers, closely, attentively and constantly.
  • Only swim where there are lifeguards.
  • Develop water competency, including swimming skills as well as the ability to recognize when a swimmer is in danger.
  • Wear a personal floatation device, i.e. life jacket, when boating.  Children and weak swimmers should wear them when near open water.
  • Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Accidental drowning is a public health risk that is preventable.  Public awareness about the time of day most drownings occur, i.e. between 4-8 PM, can help people be more vigilant and avoid these preventable events.  Community-wide awareness campaigns, and programs to enable access to swimming lessons and education for socio-economically disadvantaged youth and their families, are also recommended.

1. Data are from dispatches recorded in the National Emergency Medical Services Information System (NEMSIS), 2010-2019.  Swimmer image adapted from:

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). National Center for Health Statistics.

3. Adapted from: Denny, S. A., Quan, L., Gilchrist, J., McCallin, T., Shenoi, R., Yusuf, S., Hoffman, B.,   Weiss, J., and the Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention (2019).  “Prevention of Drowning.”  Pediatrics.  43(5):  e20190850. doi:10.1542/peds.2019-0850.

About the Authors
Mary E. Helander is a Social Science PhD student at SU’s Maxwell School, an MPH student at SU’s Falk College, and a Graduate Fellow at the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion (  Margaret K. Formica is an Associate Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and an Associate Professor of Urology at Upstate Medical University (  Alexandra Punch is the Associate Director of the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion at SU’s Maxwell School (