Drowning prevention

Published: Tuesday, 30th August 2016

Oxford City Council and partners are launching a campaign to halve the number of drowning fatalities in the city by 2026.

In the last two years alone there have been six deaths in Oxford’s rivers.

The City Council has joined forces with Oxfordshire County Council Fire and Rescue Service, Thames Valley Police and the Environment Agency to launch the Respect for Wild Water campaign.

The campaign will mainly focus on increasing awareness of the potential dangers posed by rivers, and be specifically targeted towards teenagers and young men as this group are most at risk. Nationally and locally between 80 and 90 per cent of all those who drown are male. This behaviour can also occasionally be influenced or exacerbated by alcohol or other substances.

Added to this, few young people now have experience of swimming anywhere other than heated swimming pools, so are completely unprepared for strong currents or how cold river water is – even in summer. The unexpectedly low temperature of the river water causes people to involuntarily gasp and breathe water into their lungs and become rapidly disorientated (known as thermal shock).

The other major cause of river-related deaths and accidents in Oxford is people jumping from bridges. The river through the city can be as shallow as 1.2 metres (four feet) making this activity incredibly dangerous.

A basic code, entitled: Prevent Young Deaths By Respecting Wild Water (provided below) will form the core of the message. Social media and other forums will be used to spread the word, and there will be link ups with schools and colleges.

The overall aim will be to continue to encourage people to enjoy Oxford’s waterways, but to do so in a safer and more informed way.

The local campaign follows the publication of the first UK Drowning Prevention Strategy (2016-26) produced by the National Water Safety Forum, which aims to reduce accidental drowning fatalities by 50 per cent by 2026.

Drowning is among the leading causes of accidental death in the UK; about 400 people drown every year.

Cllr Linda Smith, City Council Executive Board Member for Leisure, Parks and Sports, said: “Wild swimming is not something to be taken lightly, particularly by those with no previous experience.

“The shallowness of the river through Oxford also makes jumping from its bridges dangerous and it’s heart-breaking that so many young people are still regularly being killed or injured in this way.

“We would like to encourage all parents to make sure their children can swim and to educate them about the particular dangers rivers can pose. Hopefully between us all we can raise awareness of this issue and reduce the number of drowning tragedies happening in our city.”


Oxford’s rivers have become a place for accidental drownings, and many of these tragedies involve children and young people, cutting short lives and devastating families. Please help us stop this by educating your family and friends about the potential dangers posed by wild water. 

The River Wild: If you have never swum in a river before don’t just jump in thinking it will be like your local leisure pool; at any time of year the cold of wild water can have a dramatic effect on the body and there may also be strong currents and submerged hazards. The initial involuntary gasp reflex caused by the shock of the cold can instantly fill the lungs with water causing a fatal chain reaction within minutes. Learning to wild swim should be a gradual process and never a spur of the moment leap into the unknown.   

Look Before You Leap: It’s easy to jump in, but is there somewhere you can get out easily? Banks can be steep and slippery; only realising this after you get into difficulty will cause further panic and can mean the difference between life and death.

Don’t Drink and Dive: Drownings in rivers can occur because the person is under the influence of drink or drugs. Mixing the desensitising effects of even small amounts of alcohol or other substances with the numbing effects of the cold can create a fatal cocktail. 

Rock Bottom: Don’t jump from the bridges in Oxford; the water is just too shallow and you are likely to be hit by a double whammy of being winded or injured because you hit the bottom and gasping because of the cold. Jumping from a bridge into shallow water is likely to end your life or change it for ever.        

Flood Warning: People have drowned in the city after being swept into flooded rivers when trying to walk or cycle along partially submerged towpaths. River banks often subside under these conditions but such hazard will be invisible below the water. Even good swimmers will have little chance in a flooded river.   

Can You/Your Family Swim? Learning to swim and respect for wild water should be considered basic life skills like learning to cross the road. Swimming is also a great way of keeping fit and great fun - PROVIDING YOU DO IT SAFELY!

Please contact your local leisure centre for details of swimming lessons available. There is a general number for Oxford which will connect you to the centre in your area: 0844 8933 222. The city council and its partner Fusion Lifestyles also offer a range of free swimming lessons for under 16s to families on a limited budget.

There are also clubs that can provide training and information on wild swimming including the Oxford Wakeboard and Ski Club.

You can also visit Oxfordshire County Council’s Fire and Rescue Service 365alive website for tips and advice on water safety.