There is no single measure which makes your back yard pool absolutely safe for children …  layers of protection in addition to supervision are vitally important to make your pool safer for children. You’ve taken steps, right?

If so, you may be in the minority, shockingly. How in 2014 can parents be uninformed or complacent about the danger?  Can legislation make them act in their own best interest, thereby reducing child drowning in backyard pools?

Laws mandating layers of protection for new pools have been introduced in several US states and counties. Australia and France have restrictive laws that apply to all residential pools. What effect have these laws had? Not a controlled experiment, so we can’t be sure. But there are both positive and negative lessons for me.

A pool safety law can mandate the purchase and presence of a layer of protection, but not its use in reducing risk.  

In 2006 New York state required that all new or substantially modified pools be equipped with an in pool alarm to alert if a child entered the water. Pool dealers started stocking the least expensive alarms compliant with the new code. Many of these dealers no longer carry pool alarms, saying: “my customers don’t like them and they return for refund as soon as the inspector leaves.” Pool alarms aren’t for everyone, or laws need to be enforced, it seems.

Pool drowning dropped dramatically after a residential pool fence law was introduced in Queensland Australia in the 1990s. Partial victory was declared, prematurely given that 35 children under five later drowned in Queensland residential pools from January 2004 to May 2010. The state government responded in 2010 by introducing Australia’s toughest pool safety law, requiring all pools be registered and undergo compulsory safety inspections at the owners’ expense every two years.  Other states have followed this lead. Australian public opinion appears [I don’t live there] polarized, e.g., “Nanny state helps to drown us in our own stupidity”

A law will gain public support over time if people think it is working, in this case to reduce child drowning.  Pool safety laws raise awareness of the risk, and can improve behavior.

Prior to 2003, few pools in France were protected, and drowning rates were high. On January 3 of that year a law was passed requiring all residential pools have a fence, enclosure or pool alarm installed no later than January 1 2004. The new law gained public support, and was enforced.

Public confidence dropped when it was revealed in 2008 how many children had drowned in pools equipped with pool alarms, within 15 minutes of pool use when there is no protection – in pool alarms can’t rearm till the pool water stills. Still, pool drowning is now much  less common and less “acceptable” in France than before the 2003 law.

In my experience, situational awareness is the key to accident prevention. Aware parents adopt a pool safety regime with layers. Personal experience teaches situational awareness, but it’s a dangerous way to learn about drowning prevention.  Pool safety laws are highly imperfect, and some are ineffective.  Public education is still the best public policy tool, particularly in the US where existing pools are largely grandfathered from serious pool safety laws.