When I was growing up in the early 80’s I could see 3 home swimming pools from my back yard–not a one of them were fenced. Two of them I swam in regularly. Now, in my development of approximately 200 houses I can count on one hand the number of swimming pools. I blame fences for the decreasing number of pools to be found in the back yards of young families. To be fair…there is a requirement in my development that all pools be “in ground,” which does make them too expensive for many families–but even in neighboring communities where above ground pools are not taboo, there is a scarcity of pools compared to my childhood memories.
Why do I blame fences? Because even if they are installed by the homeowner, they are hardly an “easy” solution since they can be prohibitively expensive to a working class family—costing many times more than the pool itself. Especially since many localities require fences for ANY pool, even a 12″ deep kiddie pool. How exactly does anyone over about 18 months old drown in a 12″ pool? I would think that even the smallest toddler is going to be able to stand up after falling into that amount of water.
The logic behind installing fences is that many children die from drowning, and if we could just keep the kids away from pools by using fences, we would reduce the rate of drowning. And to be sure…drowning deaths have decreased since 1985 by approximately 30%. Sounds impressive, huh? Well wait until later when I talk about how many children actually die from drowning in backyard pools.
While I commonly see the notion tossed about that drowning in pools is the second leading cause of accidental death…I wonder where the data is to support this? In my state, drowning is actually only the 4th leading cause of injury death for children aged 1-14–following motor vehicle crashes, fires, and homicide (dropping to 5th for ages 15-24, and amounting to less than 2% of injury related deaths for all age groups). One might argue that homicides are not “accidental,” bumping up drowning to third place (many child homicides are “accidental, in that they are accidental outcomes of child abuse)…but even so, how many children are actually dying by drowning? In the 6 years from 1991-1995 less than 200 children under 20 years old died from drowning in my state–and not all of those died in swimming pools. That means approximately 35 drownings per year, so that a decrease by as little as 12 drownings per year could result in that 30% decrease I mentioned above. But did pool fences cause the decrease?
Only about half of all drowing deaths occur in pools, and quite frankly, it is difficult to parse out exactly how many do occur in pools since the data is often presented as something like “pools and water tanks.” By my best estimate, approximately 450 children under the age of 19 die in swimming pools each year in the US. But many of those deaths occur while the child has been allowed access to the pool by a consenting adult–so the fence is hardly protective. In fact, one study on the topic shows that as many as 45% of pool drownings in children aged 5-24 occur in PUBLIC pools–that is, pools that not only have fences, but also lifeguards in most cases! As for backyard pools…the Consumer Product Safety Commission–in a document describing specifics for fences around pools, notes that only 2% of drownings in backyard pools* are from individuals who accessed a pool that were not residents of the home or invited guests–so if the house is inside the perimeter of the fence, it is worthless against 98% of backyard pool drownings. One study from 1994 suggests that even 4 sided fences would be completely ineffective against 80% of pool drownings, and have questionable effectiveness against the other 20%.
So only half of all drownings are in pools, and about half of those occur in public pools with fences and lifeguards. That means that in 6 years in my state…as few as 55 children drowned in back yard pools, and only one of those would have been saved by a fence that has the house in its perimeter. And for that…anyone who desires a pool must first install several thousand dollars worth of fencing–often about $10,000. Even if we assume that fencing would prevent all pool drownings, it works out to an expense of over $2.2 MILLION per death prevented (($5,000 per fence * 200,000 new pools annually)/450 deaths annually). More realistically, tens of millions of dollars are spent on fencing for each death that is prevented.
As a mother of two small boys, I rather FEAR fences around private pools, since I am quite confident that my boys could scale those fences, while even if I could scale them under the adrenaline of fearing for my child’s life, they would slow me down in my mission to rescue my child. And I have more “heart stopping in fear/panic” moments in one visit at my local public pool when my routine “head count” turns up short than I have in a whole summer of my kids swimming in our backyard pool.
I suspect that the decline in drowning deaths that has occurred since 1985 has occurred only because of children completely loosing access to a rather enjoyable part of childhood–the home swimming pool. Is this loss worth it, or should we be looking for a less expensive option for protecting our children? Rigid pool covers? Obnoxiously loud motion detector alarms? Certainly there has got to be a solution that will allow children to enjoy summer pool fun…while protecting children from drowning.
Oddly enough, while regulations about installing fences around pools were all the rage by at least the early to mid 90’s, regulations to require parents to use child safety booster seats that cost as little as $30 each took until 2004 to be passed in my state–even though motor vehicle crashes are by far the more common cause of death in children.
Don’t get me wrong…I’m all about safety since my profession for 7 years was as a Health & Safety Specialist…I just wonder sometimes if we really think about the costs of what we are doing–are we “protecting the fun out of childhood” with pool fences? For my kids, the answer is “yes.” Because if we were to be able to install an above ground pool in our neighborhood, the cost of installing a fence would be out of our reach. Going to the public pool alone with 5 kids? Probably not going to happen very often…
*It is worth noting that the CPSC gets their data about pool drownings from death certificate data, but I do not believe the death certificate categories distinguish between residential and public pools. If this is true, the number of deaths in backyard (residential) pools is likely as low as about 250-300 incidents per year.