Many say they can swim, but actually lack basic skills, survey finds


With Memorial Day and the unofficial start to summer just days away, the American Red Cross is urging families to make learning to swim a priority this summer.

Drowning is the third leading cause of death from unintentional injury worldwide, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says. Nearly 4,000 people in the U.S. die from drowning each year, which averages to about 10 people a day – many of them children under the age of 14, according to CDC statistics.

There were 29 drowning deaths in Minnesota in 2013, which was down from 40 drownings in 2012, according to Abbey's Hope, a charitable foundation that promotes pool safety. The organization notes that May is also Drowning Prevention and Water Safety Month.

Red Cross survey found that while 80 percent of Americans say they can swim, only 56 percent of those people can perform all five basic skills that could save their lives in the water.

Those basic skills: The ability to step or jump into water over a swimmer's head; return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute; turn around in a full circle and find an exit; swim 25 yards to an exit; exit from the water – and if in a pool, exit from the water without using a ladder.

"Less than half of Americans can actually do all of the five skills that can potentially save your life in the water," Red Cross spokesperson Laura Howe told TODAY.

The Red Cross says more than 80 percent of Americans have water activities planned this summer – and nearly a third of those people plan to swim somewhere that doesn't have a lifeguard. Nearly all parents say their children will spend time in or around the water this summer, but more than half of parents say their child does not know basic skills that could save them from drowning.

To help address this problem, and to mark 100 years of swimming safety education, the Red Cross announced a plan to teach 50,000 people in 50 selected cities across 19 states how to swim. Only some of the states have been announced, and Minnesota isn't on the list so far.

On Tuesday, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department held a news conference on the shores of Lake Minnetonka to discuss water safety and the upcoming holiday weekend, reminding people to wear life jackets.

There have been several widely publicized drowning cases in the state recently. In April, a 16-year-old boy drowned in a Plymouth apartment pool.

And in February, there were two cases of students dying after being pulled from school pools – 12-year-old Abdullahi Charif was pulled unconscious from the pool at St. Louis Park Middle School. He was taken off life support two days later.

A 19-year-old also died after he was pulled from the pool at Fargo South High School. Those incidents have led school districts to take a closer look at their swimming pool policies.

These cases have also prompted lawmakers to push for legislation that requires swimming lessons.

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