“Backyard swimming pools should be banned”

by Walter Olson on February 4, 2014

Australian journalist Jo Abi is perfectly serious about the idea:

Drowning is one of the leading cause of death in children under five with majority of those deaths occurring in backyard pools. So why haven’t backyard pools been banned? If any other product or activity caused so many injuries and deaths in our most vulnerable they would be banned, there would be lawsuits, there would be outrage. Except backyard pools are an intrinsic part of Australian culture, and it’s costing us children’s lives.

One who isn’t persuaded is Lenore Skenazy, who quotes a commenter at the Australian iVillage site:

I understand one always wants to take measures to prevent deaths, but 16 deaths a year is 0.00000064% of the population. …

We really need to be careful with these kind of ideas, it might not be the banning of cars but the amount of rules that can be added in the name of safety is and will continue to spiral out of control. People seem to want a zero fatality society yet this is not only impossible, the quest for it will create a culture and country based on fear and draconian governance. Given the rules in place now, and articles like this asking for more, 100 years from now you won’t be allowed to swim at all or build, play outside, run, experience anything really.

Lenore Skenazy will be speaking at Cato tomorrow (Wednesday)(Update: postponed to March 6 due to weather). To attend, register here.

More from comments, Bill Poser:

There’s a factor missing from this discussion. The dangers of backyard pools have to be balanced against the dangers of not having them. It seems likely that backyard pools contribute to public health in two ways: (a) by increasing the cardiovascular fitness of the people who use them, who might exercise less if they did not have access to backyard pools; (b) by teaching children to swim and keeping up the swimming ability of adults. Here again, one can learn to swim elsewhere, but it is likely that the availability of backyard pools brings about swimming instruction and practice that would otherwise not occur. We can’t formulate an intelligent policy without knowing the marginal increase in deaths from heart attacks and drownings due that would be incurred by banning backyard pools.

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Ban backyard swimming pools | Freedomwatch
02.05.14 at 2:31 am

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1 marco73 02.04.14 at 9:37 am

Children drown in pools here in Florida all year round, too. It is terribly tragic. Every year the rules on pool barriers get stricter, but darn it, kids are resourceful and can get into anything.
Children also drown in the ocean, in lakes, rivers, drainage canals, retention ponds, septic tanks, toilets, and mop buckets. If we were to attempt to remove all drowning hazards, we’d have to shrink wrap the state.

2 smurfy 02.04.14 at 1:21 pm

“I understand one always wants to take measures to prevent deaths, but 16 deaths a year is 0.00000064% of the population. …”

It’s 0.001% of the Austrailian population aged 1-4, a more relevant metric. A one in one thousand chance that my son won’t live to be tall enough to ride amusement park rides still doesn’t sway me to ban Awesome but it may quite reasonably sway some.

I understand the concerns of the Free Range community. I am in constant conflict with mom, who finds my parenting style too permissive, yet the doom predicted by people such as the second commentor you quoted is simply not bearing out. From the success of GoPro and the Fox brand to the addition of half pipe skiing to the Olympic roster we are actually seeing a dramatic expansion of the amount of Awesomeness that average people -especially children- are being exposed to. Sporting life in the average family has gone from a mild trot to a spirited cantor. The pace seems to be increasing despite the people who think they are in charge tightening the reins.

3 smurfy 02.04.14 at 1:36 pm

“we’d have to shrink wrap the state.”

but children can suffocate in shrink wrap, unless of course the shrink wrap has a logo of a baby with an x over it.

4 No Name Guy 02.04.14 at 3:46 pm

While children are not idiots, the same basic idea applies:

If you try and idiot proof something, the world will invent a better idiot [thereby defeating the idiot proofing that was attempted].

5 DEM 02.04.14 at 4:07 pm

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that children have also died in public swimming pools. Ban those, too?

Then of course (as macro suggests) we have the small problem of the majority of the earth being covered by water. I am guessing kids have also drowned in the ocean, various lakes and rivers, ponds, and such. (Not tomention, sharks and such.) I’d start by banning all beaches at the Gulf of Mexico, just seems like a good place to start.

6 Spirited Cantor 02.04.14 at 4:28 pm

Please keep this in perspective, folks: we are reacting to an idea run up the flagpole by an Aussie “journalist” that no one in the Northern Hemisphere has ever heard of.

7 Stewart Peterson 02.04.14 at 6:10 pm

DEM, public swimming pools are run by big, formal organizations with rigid procedures and pompous titles for their employees.

They’re OK.

8 kathy 02.04.14 at 9:12 pm

Pools should be made safe. No slippery surface in the bottom. Especially if the pool does not have a life guard. All safety equipment should be in sight. At least take proper precautions. If it was that stats guy. And it was his kid that drowned he would quote different stats. Most home pools do not have life guards and public pools do have life guards. The requirements for the home. Pool should at least meet the minimum of the public pool. We are talking about saving all lives. One kid drowning is too many.

9 Bill Alexander 02.04.14 at 10:03 pm

“It’s 0.001% of the Austrailian population aged 1-4, a more relevant metric. A one in one thousand chance . . .”
0.001% is one in one hundred thousand chance. 0.1% is one in a thousand.

10 Stewart Peterson 02.05.14 at 12:49 am

kathy,

I call that attitude “constraint creep.” One more safety feature, one more, one more – cost is no object when dealing with human life – and eventually, there’s so much overhead stacked on top of the original idea that it costs too much for anybody to do it. Oh well.

The moment the list of requirements becomes so extensive that one person can’t deal with it all and get their job done at the same time, you have to hire compliance staff. Lawyers and bureaucrats. And compliance costs always scale up, meaning that a big corporation or government agency can afford to hire staff and keep them busy; most compliance costs come in chunks (hundreds of hours of work in a few weeks). In other words, it’s not something you can spread out over time, and not something that happens all the time: if you own 40 pools, and only a few pools are being inspected at once, your, say, two lawyers and five bureaucrats can work year-round, going from one pool to the next and preparing the paperwork. But if you’re a small business, and you have one pool – well, you still need to do the paperwork on the one pool, in whatever time-frame the government demands. That means you still need the two lawyers and five bureaucrats – but 45 weeks out of 52, those guys are twiddling their thumbs.

Trouble is, cost IS an object. Those guys could easily be making, taken together, $400,000 a year. Resources wasted in one place aren’t there to solve more pressing problems somewhere else – problems that cause more deaths, and more injuries. We’re trying to minimize those, aren’t we? Or are we trying to feel like we’re doing our best, in one narrow area of concern? Those are resources that could be used for cleaning, maintenance, actual safety, or (gasp) lowering prices so that the poor can use these services and not just the rich.

Back to private pool owners, though, are you literally proposing that backyard, private pool owners be required to hire lifeguards? Hiring an employee is massively complicated, due to labor rules developed by constraint creepers – good luck hiring someone without getting a lawyer or three involved. And presumably they should be fined, or jailed, or punished in some way, for using their own pool on their own flippin’ private property, without a lifeguard present? And presumably someone should be hired by a government agency to keep watch, everywhere, all the time?

Or, you know, we could allow people to take their own risks, with their own property and their own lives. It’s what got us here, not having to prove to some central planner that you “need” to come down out of the trees and walk upright. Some societies did in fact choose to take that approach. Their standard of living stagnated and, once they were spending all their time “complying” with goofy rules instead of producing things and doing things, those systems collapsed under their own dead weight. Look at any ossified bureaucracy: everything from the Roman Empire to Imperial China to Brezhnev’s USSR.

Point at any one of those ossified systems, with their mazes of rules, and no one rule did it. Each one, on its own, would be a good outcome if it could be achieved. No one raindrop was responsible for the flood. It was the cloud that was responsible, the source of all the raindrops. And our cloud, the cloud hovering over the future of Western Civilization, is the conversion of everything into formal, regulated process, governed by lawyers and bureaucrats. Would the process’s final outcome be a nice thing to have? Sure. Can you do anything with your life, to improve the lives of others, if you’re spending all your time complying with processes? Well, no – and that suits some people (professional bedwetters) just fine. Petrified by anything whose outcome is not totally predictable, they seek to shut everything down that they can’t understand and control. Societies dominated by these people are run into the ground in very short order.

The USSR had 18 years of Brezhnev, and we’re going to have 16 years, combined, of Bush and Obama, who have both taken the easy route of ever-expanding rules, ever-expanding enforcement systems, and ever-expanding groups of vigilante lawyers hijacking the system. The USSR couldn’t turn it around in time. Can we? We have a much bigger economic base than the USSR did, more people with practical skills and a culture that motivates them to use their skills, and better credit. We have a democratic process that means we aren’t likely to literally collapse until we physically can’t pay the bills any more. We also have many states that are in much worse shape financially than the federal government, and those states would fight tooth and nail to keep the federal government in place. Much more likely would be a gradual slide into India’s current level of bureaucracy, inertia, and general official dysfunctionality.

If you know how the majority of people live in India, that should scare you profoundly. They got that way by not being able to produce what they needed, because the system was so complicated that it ate up all the gains of the improvements that they could have made. “Chase your dreams” is incompatible with “fill out form 827-32″ or “prove to me that you really ‘need’ a pencil” – and I want people to be able to chase their dreams. Do you?

So if you’ve gotten this far, without dismissing what I’ve said because you don’t think I truly care enough, leave with this: the American legal system is addicted to complexity. Like any addict, it’s unhelpful (and ineffective) to tell them to “drink in moderation.” Don’t let the system take its first drink, or smoke its first cigarette. Don’t make the first rule or file the first lawsuit. Even if it helps in the short term, a system that’s based on short-term fixes can only be massive if it is to function at all, and a system made of a million short-term fixes will destroy the society it tries to govern. That’s what it means to be overlawyered. That’s why it must be opposed.

11 No Name Guy 02.05.14 at 1:19 am

kathy said “Most home pools do not have life guards and public pools do have life guards. The requirements for the home. Pool should at least meet the minimum of the public pool. We are talking about saving all lives. One kid drowning is too many.”

Yes….because having a PAID lifeguard at ones private, backyard pool will both ‘save the children’ and provide full employment. I can see it know…..”kids, wait….I have to call the lifeguard company. After all, they’re the only ones allowed to unlock the steel cover over the pool. I know, it’ll be an hour until they get here…..until then, just splash a bit of water from the kitchen sink on your heads….and don’t drown in the sink either. Remember, the lifeguard is to protect you.”

12 kathy 02.05.14 at 6:16 am

Hi stewart. I am not talking about reinventing the wheel. In some places people are refurbishing their pools with out regard to safety. Turning safe pools into hazardous pools. Pools are expensive to put in no need to build a dangerous pool then say too bad… i feel that if the pool is built to public standards and has necessary life saving equipment near by well enough is done. I don’t believe that in order to have a safe pool you need a safety officer. If the pool is built correctly and safely that will lessen the risk. I swim everyday and swim only in safe pools. We should all be advocating for safety first. I mean do you want to live in a house that can fall down? Observe safety standards. I am great in math too but all the stats won’t save a life especially if you use that wrong stat. If that .00000001% was someone you loved then stats would be meaningless. It’s still a person. Use the stats to save lives.
Thank you

13 kathy 02.05.14 at 7:52 am

Dear no name guy, I am not saying they need a life guard, just mentioned it. There is a concept called the buddy system. And even when there is supervision of a parent or lifeguard drownings happen. We are advocating a multifaceted approach to water safety. Your comment about employment of life guards is funny. I have actually swam in public pool where life guard could not swim but was tall so he could pull anyone out. Crazy to have a life guard who can not swim. Thank you

14 Mannie 02.05.14 at 10:00 am

Kathy, you are essentially calling for the banning of private pools, by making them too expensive for normal people to operate.

Do you drive to your public pool? That is a completely unnecessary drive. You should only be allowed to travel to work by private transport. How many children are killed by automobiles being used for unnecessary trips, annually? Perhaps private automobile use should be banned. A professional taxi driver, driving no more than 10 MPH is all you need to get around.

After all, if it can save only one child . . .

15 rxc 02.05.14 at 11:16 am

I am actually starting the process for having a pool installed in my back yard, and the last thing the vendor mentioned to me was the pool safety features – i.e., the fence or the alarms. I have started to do some safety research on pools in Florida (where I now live), and it appears that we need to have alarms on all of the doors(3 of them) from our house into the screened pool area, or we have to install a 4-ft fence inside the screened porch/pool deck, or we have to install auto closers on all the doors.

And one pool constructor/vendor’s web site has safety recommendations for pool drain vacuum release systems, non-entrapment sump covers, safety covers on top of the pool, alarms (on doors, on the windows, in the pools and in any spas, and on children), ropes and float lines, rescue equipment, posting of warnings and safety instructions, posting of CPR and drowning instructions, and an outside telephone to call for help. I think they believe that all of this would be useful to provide “layers of protection for the children”. I also think there may be a requirement that I replace the glass in the doors because they are too close to the pool deck.

It is making me reconsider my decision to build the pool, which is exactly what some people would like to hear. And since I am approaching 65, which is the magic age for becoming a “frail, elderly person”, it might be best if I forego this purchase, and just hire a bunch of experts to supervise me and tell me how to enjoy the rest of my life “more safely”.

16 rxc 02.05.14 at 11:20 am

One last comment. Why aren’t the people who call for banning outdoor pools also calling for banning all sports? After all, people (including especially children) are hurt and killed playing all sorts of games, riding bicycles, running, swimming in the ocean and lakes, sailing (my hobby), racing cars, etc.

And then there are ladders, which are the absolute enabler of dangerous conditions (including for children). They need to be completely banned, and replaced with enclosed bucket lifters, operated only by professionals who have been appropriately trained, tethered-in, and certified by a government agency for high-level work(anything more than 6 inches off the ground).

17 wfjag 02.05.14 at 12:37 pm

“I’d start by banning all beaches at the Gulf of Mexico, just seems like a good place to start.”

@ DEM — So, BP was just engaged in protecting the children?

18 Bill Poser 02.05.14 at 8:21 pm

There’s a factor missing from this discussion. The dangers of backyard pools have to be balanced against the dangers of not having them. It seems likely that backyard pools contribute to public health in two ways: (a) by increasing the cardiovascular fitness of the people who use them, who might exercise less if they did not have access to backyard pools; (b) by teaching children to swim and keeping up the swimming ability of adults. Here again, one can learn to swim elsewhere, but it is likely that the availability of backyard pools brings about swimming instruction and practice that would otherwise not occur. We can’t formulate an intelligent policy without knowing the marginal increase in deaths from heart attacks and drownings due that would be incurred by banning backyard pools.

19 Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk 02.05.14 at 10:22 pm

Bill Poser:

I want to preface my comments by noting that I respect your posts on this site. I do not always agree with you, of course. But I think you are an insighful commenter by and large. Here, however, I vehemently disagree with you.

In design defect cases, juries are asked to weigh risk versus utility (among other things). But I see no reason why sound public policy invariably needs to involve such painstaking assessments. Longstanding practices and a modicum of common sense have to count for something sometimes. I should not be put to the burden of mustering scientifically reliable epidemiological studies in support of the utility of swimming pools in order to be able to legally build or own one. State legislatures should not be frittering away finite public resources demanding or examining such studies in order craft a fully informed swimming pool policy. Such efforts themselves entail real costs and burdens and they should be reserved for manifestly more important matters.

Children interested in swimming are going to find a venue for doing so. If not private pools, then elsewhere. Many of those “elsewheres” are bound to be rather less safe than the home. The creeks I played in and around as an adolescent in the middle of north-central Wisconsin’s woodlands were sans lifeguard and had not been assessed for safety by anyone in any fashion. Shall we have the state’s Department of Natural Resources promulgate creek safety regulations to remedy the situation? Or shall we just commission studies to inform ourselves?

TL; DR Version: I don’t need any studies to know that a private pool ban is not sensible public policy.

P.S. Frankly, even if the health risks of private pools could be shown to outweigh their health benefits in a scientifically reliable fashion, the utility of private pools still would exceed their risk for me personally, because their utility includes such intangibles as unfettered access, convenience, privacy, and freedom. And I am not willing to sacrifice those benefits in the name of childproofing the world.

20 Stewart Peterson 02.06.14 at 1:50 am

kathy,

Indeed you are not talking about reinventing the wheel. I am talking about reinventing the wheel. You seem to think that a patchwork of millions of short-term fixes is perfectly OK. I don’t. You’ve apparently never tried to do anything in a system like that. I have. Got any good reasons that show that a culture of making people liable for rules they can’t possibly all read – scaring off people who aren’t well-funded and massively-organized – could improve the welfare of people?

So, of course, you apparently think I don’t care enough about the welfare of people, because I’m pointing out that your preferred approach to improving the welfare of people won’t do it, in the long term.

Should we all pursue “safety first?” Absolutely not! Have a new idea! Do something different! Chase your dreams, first! As in, don’t step on society’s best and brightest with a demand that they stop thinking up new ways to improve our lives, and start complying with some requirements that you thought up in order to feel extra, extra safe. Why would anybody do anything new or different if they knew it would bring an avalanche of bureaucracy down on them instead of the achievement of their goals?

The “safety first” crowd, in other words, has a life’s work of stopping other people from doing their life’s work. That’s reprehensible. It’s destroying the very concept of an American Dream. It says we can’t have an image of our lives as being different from what we have today – that, after all, might have unintended consequences and be “dangerous.” No, you all say, we must curl up in a ball, become defensive, and stop everything.

Organizations that try to do that – the French Army after World War I, for instance, or name any ossified big corporation – fail. People who do that, who are scared of the future and try to stop it instead of making it, fail. Societies that are politically dominated by these people and institutions, the Soviet Union being the biggest example in recent history, fail. Do you want to live in Brezhnev’s America? What good would that do for the welfare of people?

To preserve the right of people to find solutions that I wouldn’t think of, and my right to find solutions that they wouldn’t think of, I defend wholeheartedly the right of people to live in their own “house that could fall over” if they want to. It’s their right to do so. I have no business making “standards,” no matter how good my standards are, for their personal, private (read: not affecting me) behavior.

Oh, and if someone I loved died making a mistake, while doing something they wanted to do, would I constrain everybody’s behavior, preventing people from doing what my loved one had wanted to do, and would still do if they were alive to do it? Would I make them prove to some central planner that they “needed” to do it, or that it was an “appropriate risk?”

Hell no.

The more I care about someone, the more I would try to not create obstacles to their success. That means taking a broad view of the problems they face (known as a “systems approach”), rather than focusing on one problem, spending all my limited resources solving it, and having nothing available to deal with everything else.

Will that person eventually die, of something? Yes. Could I have done something to prevent that? Probably, sure – and if I had, something else would have happened. As long as I dealt with the parts of their problems that I could control, in descending order of size (size being a combination of consequences, likelihood of occurrence, and the time I have to solve it), and respected their right as a human being to make their own life choices, I can know that I maximized their chances to do what they loved.

Death is batting a thousand. My task is to make other people’s lives worth living – not miserable and short in the name of predictability.

And it is tremendously ironic that supposedly liberal people don’t seem to value that any more.

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