Rivers are a leading location for drowning, yet little is known about people’s usage of these waterways. This pilot study aimed to test the use of direct observations to calculate river usage. Direct observations were conducted at regular intervals within defined zones at four river drowning locations in Australia (including weekends and the Australia Day national public holiday). Data recorded were date and time of observation; total people (including males, females, children, and adults); and number of people on, in, and beside the water. Univariate analysis with mean (SD) and range was conducted. Interrater reliability for observations was determined using the intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) (one-way random-effects, average measures model), with a 95% confidence interval (CI). Across 149 time points, 309 observations resulted in 13,326 river interactions observed by multiple observers. There was an average of 39 people (M = 39.4, SD = 29.4, range = 0–137) per observation, 44 people (M = 44.2, SD = 32.7, range = 0–37) on an average weekend, and 97 people (M = 96.8, SD = 58.1, range = 20–190) on Australia Day. More females (M = 20.6, SD = 16.0, range = 0–83) than males (M = 18.3, SD = 14.5, range = 0–68) were observed. More people were observed in the water (M = 20.6, SD = 20.4, range = 0–84) than beside or on the water. Interrater reliability was excellent, consistently above 0.900 for all variables collected (apart from the variable of beside the river). Despite males accounting for 80% of river drowning fatalities, more females were observed than males. Increased visitation on the Australia Day public holiday may be linked to increased drowning risk. This study detailed a simple approach to data collection, exploring exposure within a defined zone at river locations. River usage is dynamic, with people’s movement in and out of the water changing their risk exposure. Observational-based data collection for drowning, particularly for rivers, is an important yet highly neglected area of research.
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