New tactics are needed to mitigate the dangers of the Ouse

The time has come for action on the issue of river deaths in York, too many have lost their lives recently yet people continue to put themselves at risk. Awareness of the issue is not enough

Following the recent tragic deaths of Megan Roberts and Ben Clarkson, there has been yet another incident, this time involving 18 year-old Tyler Pearson. The signaller of 2 Signal Regt, is believed to have entered the River Ouse in an attempt to swim across after a night out. It is not yet confirmed whether he made it out of the river. This is the third incident in just over two months involving young people entering the river, either by choice or by accident. Something needs to be done immediately in order to prevent this recurring pattern in York. It cannot and should not be denied that it’s now more vital than ever to address the issue at hand. Being aware of the dangers of the river is important but it’s not enough on its own.

A York Press article shows that between 2006 and 2011 alone, there were 11 river deaths reported in York. One of which being the death of 21-year-old Richard Horrocks who attempted to swim across the river after finishing his final shift at Revolution bar. His death in 2011 confirmed the importance of education on river safety which in turn sparked the “Think, Don’t Swim.” video campaign, launched by the York Press. It’s hard-hitting and quite grim in the way it features gravestones rising up out of the river and a forensic pathologist, strategically placed behind a coffin, talking through the physical process the body goes through when drowning. There was also a plaque put up outside Revolution, in memory of Richard, which carries the campaign logo as a warning to other people.

However, that campaign is now three years-old and although The Press have now announced a new river safety scheme, these shocking incidents are escalating quickly. There have been a total of four incidents involving people in the river over the past two months; the deaths of Megan and Ben, an “intoxicated” man surviving a jump off Lendal Bridge into the River Ouse and now Signaller Tyler Pearson. These events have all taken place after or during nights out in York and in my opinion, had there been better systems in place, none of these incidents need to have happened.

Council agencies should be advising bouncers at local clubs on how to work alongside York taxi services as well as university services and under-recognised volunteer groups such as Street Angels. Currently the church-led initiative Street Angels have volunteers who hand out bottles of water and flip flops to drunken people on Friday and Saturday nights. There is also a student-led and church supported group, Belfrey Students’ Club Mission who do something similar on a Wednesday night. In addition, YUSU have stated plans to launch a student-led volunteering scheme on all the student nights out in York, called Night Safe which would be a similar concept to Street Angels.

The council have recommended the opening of an alcohol centre in the city centre, which would be a place where people who have had too much to drink could go instead of going to hospital or putting their safety at risk in other areas of the city. Police are also seeking to extend the drinking restrictions in the city centre by being stricter with bar licensing laws.

However, there still seems to be a missing link. There is the added issue at present of some taxis refusing to take people who are really drunk (when it’s those people who probably need a taxi the most). This is where the alcohol centre could be of assistance if it is in fact put into place. Alternatively, there has been the mention of a university based pre-paid taxi service where students would pay for a taxi prior to a night out; ensuring they wouldn’t have to worry about not having enough money at the end of the night. A service like this could make such a difference if university representatives decide to back it and if taxi companies agree to participate.

You would think that the knowledge of the recent river deaths would raise enough awareness in itself, but clearly more needs to be done. Awareness cannot take the place of action. There is talk of several different possible plans and more awareness campaigns being launched after the most recent deaths. However, York services must ensure that a plan is put into motion soon. If there was a collaborative effort between the council, emergency services, bouncers, university unions, taxis and volunteer groups, a more coherent plan as to how to mitigate these risks can be put together. The pressure is on.

One comment

  1. Great article Nicole – your consideration of the various initiatives / potential initiatives is enlightening.

    However, I think you’ve neatly avoided a more poignant (and difficult) ‘missing link’ that is people taking responsibility for their own / their friends’ safety. As you suggest, the point about educating people on river safety is valid but insufficient. I remember being told in my first week at university that many people die in the Ouse, and that swimming is not just ill-advised but outright dangerous because of unseen currents… but the rational stance (‘avoid the river, it’s dangerous’) could feasibly be unbalanced by various influences that impair judgment, including (but not limited to) peer-pressure, drugs and alcohol.

    To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all river deaths in York have been related to people becoming overly intoxicated and losing their ability to look after themselves.

    What I am suggesting is that much greater emphasis should be placed on the conduct of individuals at risk than on the multiplicity of safeguarding organisations/institutions – the ‘systems in place’.

    In the light of the immediate tragedy that surrounds news of these deaths, it is taboo to say that for some individuals, had they taken different decisions with regard to taking responsibility for their own safety, their deaths could have been avoided.

    It’s difficult to coldly say that ‘if A had not been so drunk then they likely would not have tried to swim the Ouse and would not have subsequently drowned’ of ‘if one of B’s friends had been less drunk then they would have known to avoid going near the river while the rest of the group were intoxicated, and therefore could have avoided B’s falling into the river’.

    Perhaps we avoid thinking rationally about individuals involved because it can quickly become a grief-exacerbating ‘blame-game’ and prefer to consider institutions that may affect the outcome in one way or another.

    I believe that we need to raise our expectations of York’s adults: the onus of ensuring personal safety should be on them. If this means designating a trusted member of a group to retain their judgment/awareness and look out for everyone (though I concede, not all groups will have willing volunteers) or for people deciding to enjoy nights out without losing their sense of judgment, then so be it.

    I’m genuinely saddened to bring this up. Quite honestly Nicole, I hoped you might. Hopefully it should broaden the discussion and provoke a more introspective approach to avoiding tragedies like this in the future.

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