New Data: More Than 50% of Americans Never Learned This Life-or-Death Skill

Updated: May 15, 2024

The pandemic played a surprising role in a lack of knowledge around a safety practice that becomes particularly essential during a certain time of year.

Summer is high time for hitting the beach, hopping on a boat, and cooling off by the pool. While we expect a child will need close monitoring in or near the water, national experts are speaking to how common it is for even adults not to have swimming mastered, or not to be aware of critical water safety tips

In fact, about 4,000 Americans die each year—around 11 per day—due to drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As part of its May 14, 2024 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC is highlighting increases in drowning deaths over the past few years—and interestingly, they appear to have ties to the COVID-19 pandemic. As community pools closed and people were locked down in homes, it seems fewer people learned swimming and basic water safety. The data suggest this made some groups most vulnerable.

Drowning continues to be the largest cause of injury-related death for children between the ages of one and four years old. It is also proportionately higher in Black Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives and continues to increase in adults over the age of 65.

The report notes that the populations who seem to be more likely to drown are also those who don’t have significant access to programs and services that could benefit them. “Addressing system-level barriers to accessing basic swimming and water safety skills training could curb increasing drowning rates and reduce inequities,” says the report.

The rates for all of these groups increased in the years after the pandemic, particularly in 2021 and 2022 as communities began to open up. Statistics point to reduced water safety programs that several groups missed because they weren’t available during the pandemic. Rates for people aged 15 to 44 years increased in 2020, possibly due to a combination of increased alcohol use around water (which is responsible for about one-third of drowning deaths in this age group) and a lack of knowledge about swimming safety.

The report says that access to swimming lessons and basic water safety possibly could have saved lives in these cases. According to a national survey conducted between October and November 2023, while over half of respondents reported being near water six months prior, 54.7% also shared that they’d never had a formal swimming lesson.

While only 15% said they didn’t know how to swim, this still means they might have missed out on the essential lessons from formal water safety education. This includes:

  • how to secure home pools
  • when to use life jackets
  • how to correctly supervise people in the water
  • when to start swimming lessons for young children.

Another key point that has emerged in the past couple years is how important it is to dress young people in bright-colored swimsuits that are distinct from the water or pool—like bright yellow or hot pink—in an effort to make it easier to visually locate a child who may be submerged. This may also be a wise choice for anyone of any age.

red swim suit hanging o na clothes line in the summerBriBar/getty images

The hope is to change this with the U.S. National Water Safety Action Plan (2023–2032), which will serve as a “roadmap for reducing drowning and provides a framework for communities to use to develop and implement local action plans.” Finding a safe and effective swim program is a good step for anyone who hasn’t done it yet.