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Study: Rip Current Deaths and Drownings at United States Beaches (1991-2021)

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Posted on May 3, 2023

Millions of Americans visit beaches all across the country in order to spend free-time with friends and family in the warmer months, get some much needed sun, and relax. We are familiar with the fun activities that are associated with beach-going, such as wading in the waves, surfing, and playing in the sand. However, the ocean (as well as other large bodies of water), can be deadly to people having a well-intended beach day. 

We were curious as to just how dangerous beaches across the United States can be, so we looked at statistical incident data from The United States Lifesaving Association in order to better understand the risks. The reported data comes from a number of lifesaving agencies around the country, and does not include all data surrounding beach deaths in the United States. 

United States beach statistics

Table of Contents

    How Many People Visit Beaches in the U.S. Each Year?

    In order to fully understand the scale of beach visitations throughout the year, we started by taking a look at the beach attendance data. The original report dates back to the year 1969, but for the sake of this study, we will be looking at data from the 30 year period of 1991-2021. 

    The total attendance count from 1991-2021 is a whopping 9,012,470,645 people. It’s safe to say that beaches are among the most popular destinations for people looking to get away. California leads the attendance at a total of 4,926,338,206 visitors over the 30 year period. As one might guess, following behind California are the states of Florida (1,908,584,941 visitors) and Hawaii (649,643,466 visitors). 

    beach attendance by state

    How Do People Die at The Beach?

    This study focuses on multiple causes of death at American beaches, primarily drowning related deaths. They are as follows: 

    • Rip Current Deaths (Guarded and Unguarded)
    • Scuba Deaths (Guarded and Unguarded)
    • Alcohol/Drug Related Deaths (Guarded and Unguarded)
    • Surf Related Deaths (Guarded and Unguarded). 

    Guarded refers to a period of time when there was a lifeguard on duty, and unguarded refers to a period of time when there was not a lifeguard on duty. 

    Total Drowning Related Deaths

    Before diving into the specific causes of death at United States beaches, it is necessary to look at an all encompassing total of drowning related deaths. How many people in the U.S. drown in the ocean every year? According to the chosen dataset, California leads in both guarded and unguarded drowning related deaths from 1991-2021, with 1,103 unguarded deaths and 226 guarded deaths over the 30 year period. Florida and Hawaii follow, with 600 and 426 unguarded drowning related deaths, and 107 and 102 guarded drowning related deaths.  

    In total, there were 2,747 unguarded drowning deaths and 559 guarded drowning deaths from 1991-2021. From this, we can safely conclude that guarded deaths are significantly less common as compared to unguarded deaths. See the table below for a full breakdown of the total drowning deaths by state using the data from various U.S. lifesaving agencies. 

    State Unguarded Drowning Deaths Guarded Drowning Deaths
    California 1103 226
    Florida 600 107
    Hawaii 426 102
    Texas 187 43
    Illinois 108 36
    North Carolina 78 13
    New Jersey 60 9
    South Carolina 46 6
    Virginia 26 2
    Alabama 24 5
    Maryland 24 2
    New York 19 2
    Georgia 10 2
    Delaware 9 0
    Nevada 9 0
    Rhode Island 6 2
    Michigan 4 1
    Oregon 4 1
    Washington 3 0
    Massachusetts 1 0
    Total 2747 559


    Rip Current Deaths 

    A rip current is a power channel of fast-moving water that can pose a dangerous risk to beach-goers, frequently sweeping people out to sea. Rip currents travel quickly, sometimes reaching the speed of 8 feet per second – They are found along the coastlines of oceanic beaches in most areas of the United States, as well as in the Great Lakes. 

    The biggest mistake that swimmers make when they find themselves caught in a rip current is swimming against it. This becomes problematic because it creates fatigue, and you’ll never be able to out swim a rip current. It is advised to swim parallel to the rip current, and then back to shore at an angle once you have safely gotten out of the rip. 

    In the past 30 years, there have been multiple reports from the USLA of drowning deaths caused by and/or as a direct result of a rip current. See the table below for a full breakdown of rip current deaths by state. 

    State Unguarded Rip Current Deaths Guarded Rip Current Deaths
    Florida 273 22
    Hawaii 98 16
    California 82 18
    Texas 36 9
    Maryland 35 28
    North Carolina 24 3
    New Jersey 13 0
    South Carolina 13 5
    Alabama 11 0
    Delaware 3 0
    Georgia 3 0
    Virginia 3 4
    Total 594 105


    Differing from the total drowning data, Florida is the leader among rip current deaths in the United States. However, California, Florida, and Hawaii remain the top three most fatal states in rip current deaths. 

    Surf Related Deaths

    Surf related fatalities occur in surf zones throughout the United States where waves, swell, and currents are prominent. Inexperienced swimmers are in the most danger when it comes to surf zones, as large waves and moving water can pose a serious safety risk.

    It is important to become aware of the nature of the surf if you are planning on visiting a beach. Some beaches have little to no surf, while others have dangerously powerful swells. See the table below for a full breakdown of surf related deaths from 1991-2021. 

    State Unguarded Surf Deaths Guarded Surf Deaths
    California 42 11
    Hawaii 42 9
    Florida 39 6
    Texas 29 3
    North Carolina 3 2
    Georgia 2 0
    Virginia 2 0
    Alabama 1 0
    Maryland 1 0
    New Jersey 1 0
    New York 1 0
    South Carolina 1 0
    Total 164 31


    Scuba Deaths 

    There are not a significant amount of scuba related deaths according to the USLA dataset. This is most likely due to the nature of scuba diving, as divers are usually trained, supervised, and have access to an oxygen tank. 

    Scuba diving is an aquatic activity that may require a certification. However, California does not require a scuba certification in order to go scuba diving. It is also not required to have a scuba certification in the states of Hawaii and Florida. Although experienced divers will tell you that becoming certified is the best thing you can do for your safety and the safety of others. If you do decide to go diving in states that do not require certification, you are doing so at your own risk. 

    State Guarded Scuba Deaths Unguarded Scuba Deaths
    California 1 32
    Hawaii 1 11
    Florida 0 7
    Nevada 0 3
    Total 2 53

    Injury Statistics for U.S. Beaches 

    Death is not the only major risk for beach-goers around the country. There are also a variety of injuries that can occur while visiting the beach. From broken limbs to head injuries, the chosen dataset provides insight on Major, Minor, and Total Medical Aids needed on beaches across the United States from 1991-2021. 

    Medical Aids: Major, Minor, and Total 

    State Medical Aids – Major Medical Aids – Minor Medical Aids – Total
    California 377141 1244590 1623922
    New Jersey 118837 85897 204734
    Florida 109283 1866435 1975818
    Hawaii 107434 2560328 2667762
    Illinois 19635 74902 94537
    North Carolina 9999 14879 24878
    Rhode Island 9447 296 9743
    New York 7849 10734 18583
    Maryland 7665 28920 36585
    Texas 5822 65554 71376
    Virginia 5731 69015 74746
    South Carolina 5449 574901 580350
    Delaware 5036 28531 33567
    Arizona 1739 11137 12876
    Alabama 935 12704 13639
    Washington 501 816 1317
    Wisconsin 440 206 646
    New Hampshire 384 4565 4949
    Georgia 244 2203 2447
    Nevada 153 490 643
    Massachusetts 130 3745 3875
    Oregon 122 549 671
    Maine 67 1116 1183
    Idaho 46 467 513
    Pennsylvania 20 194 214
    Michigan 6 923 929
    Ohio 0 29 29
    Total 794115 6664126 7460532

    Other Beach Safety Hazards 

    Water Quality 

    Water quality is a silent, yet dangerous aspect to consider when discussing beach safety. Polluted water can expose humans to a variety of infections, illnesses, and diseases. Poor water quality is especially dangerous if you are swimming and/or in contact with polluted water when you have an open wound. It is important to take the necessary precautions to avoid infection from poor water quality; always check the water quality in your area online before swimming or coming in contact with the water. 

    Water Temperature 

    Cold water temperatures are a major threat to beach-goer safety. As a general rule of thumb, anything under 50 degrees fahrenheit is considered dangerous and poses the risk of hypothermia. Even if you feel like you can bear cold water temperatures, it’s important to acknowledge that hypothermia can set in over a prolonged period of time. It is best to stay vigilant and avoid spending long amounts of time in colder water. 

    Sun Damage 

    Keeping yourself protected from the sun while at the beach is extremely important. People are susceptible to the damaging UV (ultraviolet) rays from the sun, and human skin is easily damaged if too much time is spent in the sun without protection. The damage of skin cells from the sun can cause multiple forms of skin cancer with prolonged exposure. It’s a good idea to check the UV index in your area before heading outside; if the UV index is above 3, be sure to use adequate sun protection such as sunscreen, hats, clothing, and umbrellas/shade. 

    What Counties Are Beach Deaths Happening In?

    The dataset we looked at shared data from multiple lifesaving agencies throughout the country. In order to determine the deadliest beaches across the nation, we gathered the drowning data by county/region. Below is a table that showcases the Top 20 deadliest regions in regards to total drowning deaths. California comes out on the top with 553 unguarded drowning deaths, and a grand total of 692 drowning deaths. Kauai County (Hawaii) follows, with a total of 243 drowning deaths, and Galveston County (Texas), has a total of 198 total drowning deaths. For more statistics, take a look at the table below to see more drowning death data by county/region.

    Table:  Top 20 Deadliest Regions Regarding Drowning Deaths

    County Unguarded Drowning Deaths Guarded Drowning Deaths
    California State Parks 553 139
    Kauai County 196 47
    Galveston County 161 37
    Los Angeles County 155 33
    San Diego County 144 26
    Cook County 108 36
    Honolulu City and County 101 26
    Orange County 89 9
    Volusia County 84 18
    Palm Beach County 79 15
    Maui County 76 19
    Brevard County 66 19
    Broward County 66 8
    Hawaii County 40 9
    Dare County 39 6
    Bay County 36 8
    Okaloosa County 32 6
    East Bay Regional Parks District 31 4
    Horry County 31 4
    Nassau County 31 2

    Beach Safety Tips 

    Beach safety is crucial for anyone planning on spending time near the water. To prevent accidents, injuries, and drownings, some basic guidelines should always be followed. You can stay safe at the beach by following some of these tips: 

    • Make sure to swim only in areas where lifeguards are present. 
    • Be aware of any posted signs regarding water conditions such as strong rip currents or marine life activity. 
    • Do not swim alone or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 
    • If you are with children, keep them close when around large bodies of water, as they can be swept out to sea easily. 
    • If you find yourself caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the shore until you have exited the rip current and can swim back to shore safely. 
    • Drink plenty of water, and use an ample amount of sunscreen and appropriate shade to avoid dehydration and exhaustion. 

    While keeping these safety tips in mind, you can have a fun and relaxing time at the beach, and enjoy everything that our beautiful oceans and lakes have to offer. 

    If you would like to use any of the images, findings, or data in this study for a report or republishing purposes, please link to this page to provide credit. If you would like to schedule a free consultation for a San Diego personal injury case, contact our firm today.