Being an affluent, warm-weather country, Australia enjoys a very high number of private household pools, but as a result it also endures a high number of backyard pool drownings. Fortunately, the rate of drownings has generally fallen in recent years, in large part due to an increase in the adoption of effective local, regional and national legal standards mandating safety measures for all new and existing pools.
Child safety advocates have welcomed this long-awaited legislation, but many have questioned why it has taken so long to be introduced. Although studies have long called for increased government measures for effective, safe pool legislation, mandates for adequate pool safety throughout Australian history have been enacted late, repealed or simply made too weak to make a difference. This situation continued for decades until public awareness of the problem was significant and vocal enough to finally force what has become meaningful action on the level of government.
Death of children by pool drowning was a recognised problem by the 1960s. The rate of drowning deaths of children less than 15 years was, at the time, 5.27 out of 100,000. For children under five years old, the rate was 50 per cent higher than children between five to nine years, and 130 per cent higher than children between 10 to 14 years.
By the early 1970s, preformed fibreglass pools became widely available to households and the rate of drowning for young children jumped enormously. Although drowning rates for older age groups were falling as time went by, that was not being mirrored in the under-five age group. For children under five, the 1973 rate was 50 per cent higher than it was in 1970, increasing from 7.3 to 10.76 deaths per 100,000.
Early findings regarding fencing
Knowledge of safety measures that would effectively reduce and prevent drowning deaths of young children was available as early as 1972. Safety fences with a minimum height of 1.1m and equipped with self-closing and self-latching gates were mandated statewide in South Australia in 1972. As knowledge increased, improvements in safety guidelines were slowly implemented in the late 1970s.
Despite early knowledge of pool safety measures and their effectiveness, jurisdictions across Australia were inconsistent in adopting these measures. They were either slow in mandating them, enacted weak safety regulations or repealed legislation soon after adopting it. Many jurisdictions dragged their feet and did not implement any regulations until the late ‘80s or later, while other jurisdictions gave into vocal, organised opposition to increased safety measures and watered down or repealed pool safety regulations altogether.
Opposition to pool safety requirements
A large factor in the slow and inconsistent implementation of effective pool safety regulations was the opposition coming from the pool industry, ordinary citizens and politicians. Concerns underlying their opposition included the high cost of installing pool fences, fear of losing sales, denial of the prevalence of child immersion rates, and fear of losing votes.
Pool safety today
In 1990, the NSW Government enacted pool safety laws that universally required all new and existing pools to be fenced according to the best available practice. Although the requirement for existing pools was subsequently repealed, this was the first instance of an Australian government enacting such an unequivocal law mandating pool safety. Other states gradually followed suit, enacting more or less similar pool safety laws throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s. At present, the state of pool safety laws and enforcement is greatly improved since the time of the early ‘70s, but there is still a long way to go to protect our children from the hazardous temptation of the home swimming pool.