Alcohol is a leading risk factor for fatal unintentional drowning in rivers in Australia . Sixteen percent of river users recorded a positive BAC, with 7% of these recording a contributory level of alcohol (BAC ≥0.05%). Sixty-four percent (63.6%) of river users surveyed were found to consume alcohol at hazardous levels, compared to 18% of the Australian population aged 18 years and over in 2016 .
River users residing in inner regional areas, areas defined as low IRSAD, who visit the river in the afternoon, with friends, on days with higher maximum air temperatures, frequent river users (11+ times in the last 30 days) and those who spend longer on average in the water (301+ minutes) were significantly more likely to have contributory levels of alcohol when breathalysed. Key findings with a focus on comparisons with previously published alcohol-related fatal drowning statistics and river exposure are discussed, as well as implications for river drowning prevention.
A previously conducted nationally representative computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) survey of river users found that 16% of people surveyed self-reported consuming alcohol at a river when they visit . Similarly, this study found 16% of those surveyed recorded positive BACs at the river when breathalysed. When comparing the two studies by sex and age group, 9% of females and 15% of males self-reported consuming alcohol at the river, compared to 16% of males and females respectively when breathalysed, indicating females may underreport their alcohol consumption at rivers when asked to self-report .
There are inconsistencies in the drinking behaviour of river users when compared to the general population. This study found 13% of river users drink five or more alcoholic drinks per day, compared with 7% of the Australian population . With respect to river users who drink at risky levels, 24% of river users surveyed stated they did, similar to 26% of the Australian population . These findings suggest river users surveyed are twice as likely to drink at heavier levels daily than the general population, but are not binge drinking as much as the general population. Reducing alcohol-related drowning risk among this cohort of river users will be challenging, and starts with behaviour change in daily life, far removed from river drowning risk. This behavior is also carried into the river setting and work is required to ensure that the activity of drinking and entering the water is avoided.
Males continue to be the primary target of strategies aimed at reducing drowning at river locations in Australia . This is warranted as males account for the vast majority (84%) of river drowning deaths where blood alcohol levels are known to be contributory . The authors note, however, that the females breathalysed in this study, are drinking at similar rates as males. Females accounted for 45% of all river users with a BAC ≥0.05%, recorded a higher mean BAC ≥0.05% (0.139%) than males (0.129%) and a higher number of females (n = 18) than males (n = 15) recorded a BAC of ≥0.100% (double the contributory level). These findings are supported by recent research that identifies rates of alcohol use appear to be converging among males and females , with more females in younger cohorts increasingly likely to record higher levels of alcohol use and abuse . Despite decreases among Australian males, exceeding lifetime alcohol risk guidelines in females has remained similar .
Further research is warranted to examine the differences in behaviour (and the factors underpinning this) that see males and females drink at equally risky levels, but predominately males represented in fatal river drowning statistics where alcohol is involved. With clear links identified between masculinity and risky drinking behaviours around water [51, 52], the authors postulate that males may be pressured to go back into the water and engage in risky behaviours after consuming alcohol, whereas females may be more likely to stay on the bank when under the influence of alcohol. This assumption requires further testing to examine the different attitudes between males and females influencing this behaviour. Further research should also be conducted to test this study’s findings of alcohol consumption (and BAC levels) among females at more river locations.
Time of day
People who were surveyed and breathalysed at rivers in the afternoon and evening hours were significantly more likely to record BACs ≥0.05%. This mirrors analysis of fatal river drowning data in Australia that shows 64.3% of all fatal river drowning with a contributory level of alcohol occurred at such times. Evening hours show a link between fatal river drowning and contributory levels of alcohol , posing a challenge for data collection. The number of people at rivers in the evening hours is scarce, however the likelihood of recording a positive BAC increased, mirroring the number of alcohol-related drowning deaths at these hours . Alcohol related drowning deaths at rivers in the evening appear to be a rare yet regularly occurring event and as such, prevention of such drowning deaths will require upstream approaches to prevent the intoxicated person from drowning.
One-fifth (20%) of all fatal drownings in Australian rivers known to involve contributory levels of alcohol occurred in the early morning hours (i.e. 12:01 am to 6 am). It may be postulated that those more likely to consume alcohol in the afternoon and evening hours, be it at the river or not, are the ones who continue to drink alcohol into the early morning hours, increasing their risk of harm or injury, including drowning. While the link between risky drinking in everyday life and BACs ≥0.05% at the river was identified by this study, the assumption around time of day requires further testing to better illuminate the link between alcohol consumption, time of day and river drowning risk.
A limitation of this study was that survey and breathalysing data were not collected during the late evening and early morning hours, with the latest survey and breathalyser reading being recorded at 6:50 pm. However, numbers of river users decreased later in the day with the authors postulating that there would be very few river visitors after 8 pm at night. Alternative methods for collecting exposure and alcohol consumption-related data at rivers in both urban and regional areas during the late evening and early morning hours should be explored, and may include online surveys  and technological solutions such as remote camera observation , however the impact of time of year and season must be considered. Collecting BAC readings poses more of a challenge but remains worthy of further exploration.
Aquatic location, activity being undertaken and exposure are all factors that may impact the likelihood and level of alcohol consumption. Unlike the other three research sites where recreating beside the water and swimming were the two main activities being undertaken, the Hawkesbury River site’s top two activities were boating (82%) and water skiing (55%). The Hawkesbury River site was also the only site where respondents were significantly less likely to record positive BACs (and therefore BACs ≥0.05%).
The potential link between participation in boating activity and decreased likelihood of alcohol consumption at rivers needs further examination. Length of stay at the river may be a factor. River users who self-reported participating in boating activities were significantly more likely to stay longer at the river (301+ minutes), however this study also found a link between staying longer at the river and likelihood of having a BAC ≥0.05% (121–300 min in the water X2 = 8.5; p = 0.007; 301+ minutes in the water X2 = 16.2; p = 0.002), which was not found among those participating in boating (X2 = 0.368; p = 0.544).
It may be that those participating in boating activities in the sample were less likely to drink due to needing to drive their motor vehicle to the boat ramp, the monetary value associated with their vessel and the impact of damaging it and also the perception of increased likelihood of being breath tested by police either on roads or the river, given the Hawkesbury River is located in an area defined as major cities. Further investigation with this cohort is vital, given that 24% of all fatal drownings due to boating and watercraft incidents were known to involve a person with a BAC ≥0.05% .
Young males and risk taking
Drowning deaths of river users as a result of risk-taking behaviours (i.e. jumping into water from height) and alcohol are more likely to be young males . This study did find a link between alcohol and self-reported risk taking behaviour, with those who agreed it was okay to drink alcohol as the skipper of a boat or while swimming in a river significantly more likely to record positive BACs and to drink at hazardous levels. Further research is required to better understand the link between alcohol and risk-taking behaviour, particularly among the young male cohort. Are young males aware they are taking a risk, do they indeed engage in risky behaviour because they enjoy taking risks and would such behaviour continue without the influence of alcohol? Further research is required to understand the psychological factors impacting such behavioural choices, which in turn will influence the development of strategies that are more likely to be effective in changing such behaviour .
Adolescence is described as an age of increased risk taking and impulsivity  and the published literature, often defines 16–21 year olds as the age group most likely to undertake risky behaviour  and to experience an escalation in alcohol use and misuse . Due to ethical constraints, this study surveyed and breathalysed adults (18 years and over), and in reporting results, aggregated the 18–34 years age group to allow for comparison with previously published studies of alcohol-related river drowning and river exposure [5, 28]. The potential limitation of combining such disparate experiences within a heterogeneous age group must be considered and disaggregated in future studies to identify the ages of peak risk taking from an alcohol-related drowning prevention perspective. Further work is also required to examine underage drinking and the impact this has on drowning risk.
It has long been postulated by drowning prevention researchers and practitioners that there may be increased risk of drowning on public holidays , due to opportunities for exposure to water as a result of more leisure time (adults not at work and children not at school) [58, 59], the celebratory nature of the occasion, and the consumption of alcohol . This study found a link between the Australia Day public holiday and increased alcohol consumption at rivers, with a mean BAC among those who were consuming alcohol on Australia Day being 0.114%.
The site where data were collected on Australia Day had been designated an ‘alcohol free zone’ by the local council. However, as the data presented in this study shows, alcohol continued to be consumed, sometimes to excessive levels (e.g. the highest BAC recorded on Australia Day was 0.308%). The findings of this study have identified challenges around controlling safe alcohol consumption at public locations. Despite research showing public support for restrictions on alcohol consumption in public places , alcohol-free zones are unlikely to be effective without public awareness and enforcement of rules. Future questions to be answered include: Are alcohol-free zones likely to succeed in preventing all river users from drinking, or just those who do not drink at risky levels? Does it allow those who would drink to excess to ‘have the day off’ or does it move those who wish to drink to other, potentially less safe, locations to drink? What is the effect of such alcohol-free zones and are there other strategies to reduce alcohol consumption at rivers?
A limitation in being able to explore the link between public holidays, alcohol consumption and drowning risk, is that this data represents one public holiday at one aquatic location only. Further research is required to determine whether the phenomena is true of other public holidays, other rivers, and other types of aquatic location.
The results of this study appear to indicate a link between hot weather and alcohol consumption. River users who were breathalysed on days with a maximum air temperature (36.8 °C–39.9 °C) were significantly more likely to record both positive BACs and BACs ≥0.05%. This finding may be used to guide the timing of prevention messages around alcohol risk and drowning in the lead-up to predicted high temperatures and the summer months.
The link between air temperature and drowning risk (not alcohol-related) has previously been explored. A study in Canada found a 69% increase in risk of outdoor drowning when temperatures exceeded 30 degrees Celsius . While a study from Australia found air temperature did not impact beach visitation between genders, there was a slight impact on beach visitation by age group . This impact of hot weather and alcohol-related drowning risk appears worthy of further testing, including the impact of temperature on both likelihood of consuming alcohol and amount of alcohol consumed at rivers, as well as other aquatic locations.
It must be noted that the maximum air temperatures reported in this study, do not take into account humidity. High humidity has the ability to dramatically increase how hot a day feels . This is especially relevant to the Alligator Creek research site, which was located in northern Queensland. Capturing wet-bulb temperatures  to account for both air temperature and humidity should be incorporated into future studies examining alcohol consumption at rivers, although wet-bulb is not without its own limitations .
Attitudes and behaviour
River users were significantly more likely to record a positive BAC and to drink at hazardous levels if they showed support for attitudinal questions around drinking alcohol while the skipper of a boat and drinking alcohol before swimming. Achieving attitudinal and behaviour change among this cohort is likely to prove challenging. Using established models around behaviour change such as the Transtheoretical model (TTM) , a model of behaviour change that focuses on the readiness of the individual to change their behaviour, allow for a starting point at which to develop appropriate strategies. The authors postulate that river users who consume alcohol at hazardous levels in their daily life are likely at the precontemplation stage and are unaware of the potential increased risk of drowning their drinking may create. Such assumptions require further validation.
The consumption of alcohol (often to excess) and participation in recreational activities in and around the water appear to be an intrinsic part of Australian culture [52, 68], meaning behaviours are deeply embedded and likely to take many years to change. A variety of strategies will be required to move people towards termination of consumption of alcohol at hazardous levels at rivers. Examining the psychological motivations underpinning such behaviours must form a vital component of any future research into river drowning and its prevention, to ensure appropriateness and efficacy of any intervention.
There were differences in attitudes towards acceptability of drinking and driving a motor vehicle and alcohol-related river usage among those surveyed. Of those surveyed, 7% agreed that it was okay to drink alcohol and drive a motor vehicle, 10% agreed it was okay to drink alcohol and operator a boat as skipper, 42% agreed it was okay to drink alcohol as a passenger on a boat and 21% agreed it was okay to drink alcohol before swimming. The authors posit such differences in attitude regarding alcohol use between road and river may be due to familiarity and understanding of the risks of drink-driving a motor vehicle due to exposure to advertising, as well as the visible police enforcement of legislation outlawing the behaviour through random breath testing, fines and prosecution . While legislation already exists in seven of eight Australian states and territories (except the Northern Territory) regulating the operation of a powered vessel with a BAC ≥0.05%, enforcement is weak, in particular on rivers and outside metropolitan areas . River drowning prevention practitioners should examine interventions that have been found to be successful in reducing injury due to alcohol in road traffic and explore if such strategies may be suitable for alcohol-related river drowning prevention.
Strengths and limitations
Exposure around aquatic activity is challenging to capture. This study is the first of its kind and fills an important knowledge gap regarding exposure and consumption of alcohol at rivers. This study uses subjective measures (questionnaire) and objective measures (BAC reading) and cases of fatal unintentional alcohol-related river drowning to explore risk. While subjective measures have limitations, using the objective measure of a BAC reading confirmed a link between self-reported behaviour and a contributory level of alcohol. This study has identified river users at increased risk of alcohol-related river drowning and, therefore, targets for future interventions to change such risky behaviour.
Responses are self-reported and may be subject to recall bias , including questions on self-reported average daily alcohol consumption and alcohol consumption at ‘risky levels’ . This is a limitation. Respondents may have also over-inflated their alcohol consumption when participating with their peers. As the research attracted media coverage (print, radio, television and online) the results may be subject to social desirability bias . The survey was administered in English which may have impacted participation, particularly by those born outside Australia. The sample was a random convenience sample and therefore results represent the views of those attending the four river locations only. Caution should be used when extrapolating the results more broadly. Those in the study may have been subject to participation bias, with those more likely to drink, opting in; or those who didn’t drink, thinking the study was not applicable to them. The BAC reading represents a single point in time only. Further research is required to validate these findings more widely. A further limitation of this study was that data on refusal rate were not recorded. Although 3.6% of fatal drowning in rivers with contributory levels of alcohol occurred in children 17 years and younger , for ethical reasons, this study only included adults (18 years and older).