Awareness without learning: A preliminary study exploring the effects of beachgoer's experiences on risk taking behaviours

Heliyon. 2022 Dec 8;8(12):e12186. doi: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2022.e12186. eCollection 2022 Dec.


Most drowning deaths on Australian beaches occur in locations not patrolled by lifeguards. At patrolled locations, where lifeguards supervise flagged areas in which beachgoers are encouraged to swim between, the incidence of drowning is reduced. To date, risk prevention practices on coasts focus on patrolled beaches, deploying warning signs at unpatrolled locations with the aim of raising public awareness of risk. What remains unexplored is the potential for learning and behaviour change that can transfer from patrolled to unpatrolled beaches through beachgoer's experiences and interactions with lifeguards. The aim of this preliminary study is to explore the risk perceptions of beachgoers at a patrolled beach to establish if and how their experiences of beach risk and interactions with lifeguards affect their behaviours. Data was collected in Gerroa, Australia by engaging 49 beachgoers using a mixed survey-interview methodology. Results show that beachgoers are aware that they should 'swim between the flags', but many did not know the basis for the positioning of safety flags. A key finding is that beachgoer's express a clear desire for a skills-based model of community engagement that enables learning with lifeguards. This demonstrates a reflective public that desires skill-development, which may transfer from patrolled to unpatrolled beaches to affect broader risk reduction on the Australian coast. Learning how to avoid site-specific rip hazards with lifeguards at the beach presents a promising, and previously unexplored model for beach drowning risk prevention that has the potential to affect behaviour at unpatrolled beaches, providing an empirically-supported alternative to prevailing deficit-based awareness raising methods.

Keywords: Beach skills; Behaviour change; Experiences of risk; Safety flags; Surf lifeguards.