Dangers in jumping off piers photo Kurt Byers

Great Lakes breakwall that accounts for many swimming accidents | Photo: Kurt Byers

Great Lakes Water Safety Conference addresses swim safety risk communication

The rationale of this research project addressed the following questions. Why are young men disproportionately dying in the Great Lakes? Are they behaving like the Lakes are not dangerous?  Do young men think they are invincible? Young males do not think they are not at risk but perceive they are less at risk. They are more likely to overestimate their swimming ability and underestimate the potential risks associated with swimming. In addition, young males spend more time in the water and are likely to swim in deeper water.

Many of the young male participants in this research project, who ranged in age from 18 to 24 years old, talked to their parents, most often their mothers, about swimming related risks. Other sources of information included college orientation, YMCA, beach survival challenge, and boating safety classes. Many reported making the decision to swim prior to going to the beach, which could minimize the effect that warnings on the beach have on their behavior. Internet use to check for conditions was not widely used for general swimming.

Young males rarely reported going to the beach alone thus exposing them to social pressure from friends to participate in risky behavior such as jumping off of piers or breakwalls. There was also social pressure to “show off” for females at the beach. To make things worse alcohol use was also associated with this risky behavior. The flag system used at many Great Lakes beaches may be counterproductive as it actually encourages young males to swim on red flag days during high waves when dangerous currents are present. Thus red flags when observed by young males may indicate “fun” instead of “danger.”

Findings from the research project show that signs and flags cannot be the only strategy used to reduce risk but can be more effectively used with warnings from lifeguards. Changing knowledge and raising awareness are not adequate to influence behavior change as factors such as alcohol use and peer pressure override existing knowledge. Information seeking might not be an effective strategy as young males do not seek any pre-swimming information. Since mothers play a key role in communication of risk information to young males, targeting messages to mothers might be an effective strategy for reaching this demographic. Signs can be a valuable source of information, but participants in the research project warned that they should not be the only method of communicating risk to young males. When signs are used there should be clear risk and methods of escape messages.


Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.