River Safety – No Simple Solutions

River safety has been a hot topic in Durham recently, with three students killed and now another rescued from the river in the middle of the night. Understandably, conversations have turned to how to prevent this happening again in the future, and a petition to “install CCTV cameras along the river banks, add some lighting for the safety of the public and/build a railing to ensure that this doesn’t happen anymore. “ These events are tragic, and have been deeply upsetting to the residents of Durham. There’s no wonder that people are demanding that something, anything, be done by the University, the Police or the County Council.

But there’s a need to be sensible about how we go about it. This isn’t just about the river, it’s about people as well. In general the idea of additional lighting and CCTV cameras in the area isn’t a bad one, at the very least the worry and uncertainty of not knowing what has happened will be reduced. I applaud the people who signed that petition for wanting to take steps to prevent deaths in the river. But these suggestions are just treating the symptoms of a much worse underlying problem. Ignoring for the moment the costs and practicalities of some of these measures (and not even bothering to address the ridiculousness of staffed or locked gates being installed to stop access at night that others have raised), we are still facing an underlying issue which people do not want to acknowledge.

The fact is, that people do not just fall in the river for no reason. Nor is it a malevolent force which has to be guarded against. The paths are, for the most part, not dangerous or crumbling. The world is inherently dangerous – we face dangers every day. However for the most part we avoid these dangers by awareness and care. This is not the case when people are impaired by alcohol.

It is abundantly clear at this point that alcohol is playing a major role in these incidents. The Police have pointed this out, and the University response to the situation is very aware of this. This is not intended as victim blaming. These incidents remain tragic accidents, but we have to acknowledge that alcohol significantly enhances the probability of being involved in an accident. People who are drunk make poorer decisions, are less able both physically and mentally to respond to dangerous situations, and are generally more vulnerable to conditions such as hypothermia. These particular accidents all ended with the river, but the individuals concerned were in danger long before that. All of the barriers and cameras in the world can’t change this. If it wasn’t the river then we would still be having problems with hypothermia, car accidents, violence and muggings involving individuals in this condition.

There are no simple solutions to this problem either of course – if there was we’d have solved the problem long ago. There are sensible, practical steps we can take though. These can be implemented at every level: the university could stress safety in its induction process, colleges could encourage students to stay there, the DSU could step up and actually be an active force in student’s lives (holding events where alcohol isn’t the main focus), Team Durham and sports groups could encourage socials which are not centred solely around drinking – and so on. Some of these solutions may end up being counter-intuitive – keeping college bars open later so that students pace themselves is an example of this. It isn’t going to be easy, drinking is heavily ingrained into student life, and it is far from easy to change a culture. The solutions aren’t simple, and you can’t solve this by throwing money or personnel at the problem. Fence off the entire river, and all you’ll find is people climbing over the fence or taking a shortcut through traffic instead. The University, the Police and the Council can do things to help, but they’re complicated, hard and might not always work. Don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise.

Most importantly, at the very end of the day, it does also need to come down to personal responsibility. Look out for yourselves and look out for your friends. The University, the Police and the Council aren’t there to protect you from yourself.


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