Stop scolding us for our drinking habits and put up some railings

Focusing on dangerous drinking is important, but we mustn’t let it blind us from what also needs to be done

Almost exactly a year ago this week a student called Christoper Taylor died when he fell into the River Avon after a night out in Bath.

In their statements about the incident his friends said that he was not a heavy drinker and when he set off to walk home he was not very drunk or staggering; the post mortem corroborated this, the levels of alcohol they found in his blood were not serious or severe, just enough to slightly impair his coordination.

A passer-by who came across the incident told police how the student had fallen down a 12 foot drop into the river. Despite the fact he had not drunk in excess the danger of the river and the surrounding area had proven too perilous.

On Friday morning a Durham student was rescued from the River Wear, he had fallen in after walking along the footpath back from a night out. Thankfully, the river did not claim a fourth life in a year and a half, but it doesn’t bear thinking about what might have happened had someone not raised the alarm.

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Three Durham students have died in the River Wear after nights out since October 2013

When asked about the incident the police cited “reckless consumption of alcohol” as a cause, Terry Collins, Chair of the City Safety Group suggested that it was an issue of “drinking sensibly” and the acting Vice-Chancellor opened a list of safety recommendations with “ensure you drink responsibly”.

Are these kinds of responses actually helping anyone?

It is true, no one would fall in the river when drunk if nobody got drunk or nobody went near the river, but these, as measures, are unrealistic. It’s got to the point where when we’re told to be “be proactive about your personal safety” it now seems to be just a thinly veiled euphemism for “wrap yourself in cotton wool”. As ideal a world as that would be, students aren’t going to stop drinking on the off chance they may be one person in 16,000 that falls in the river on a night out.

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Realistically student drinking will never stop completely

The thing the police seem to have missed is this “it will never happen to me” attitude with which people go about their lives. I know that cars crash all the time, in fact the chances of me dying in a car crash in the next 3 months is 1 in 20,000, yet still I travel by car. Are my vehicular travel habits “reckless”? No.

To brand this type of drinking “reckless” is the worst type of victim blaming, as if excessive drinking somehow always leads to falling in the river or to go out and have fun is reckless to the fact that you might. It doesn’t and it isn’t. I’ve spent many a night drunk only to wake up safely at home. Yes, drinking can increase the chances of falling in the river but that’s very different to suggesting that doing so makes you reckless to this danger.

I admit, binge drinking is a problem. It can lead to long term health problems and can even lead to death by excessive drinking. It’s also fairly prevalent in Durham (along with every other university around the country). Recently, deaths in the river have been prevalent in Durham too. The mistake is people emphasising the connection between these two issues.

The scene where a body was retrieved earlier today

This situation has repeated itself in Durham too often recently

There may be something of a causal link between the two, it might even be that some river deaths are caused by binge drinking. But when looking at binge drinking and deaths in the river the suggestion that the latter is an extension of the former is absurd.

They are both issues and they both need to be sorted but sorting one does not sort the other.

To think that by curbing binge drinking the river problem just goes away is naive. Jack Rivlin wrote a great piece in the Tab this week which addressed the fact that student binge drinking is, in fact, declining – whereas for some reason in Durham river deaths have increased.

That’s what those in statistics call a negative correlation.

You can either look at that by creating a forced causal link between the two and stupidly say that the decline in binge drinking is causing deaths in the river (post hoc ergo propter hoc, Hume would string you up), or you could see it for what it really is: while the link between the two is existent, it is no way near as significant is being suggested.

What you can’t do is look at those stats and say with certainty that the two things come in one big causal bundle, there is no evidence to suggest that with excessive drinking will always come deaths in the river. The incident in Bath proves that this isn’t the case: the level of drinking is, in many instances, irrelevant.

Those blue bars on the leftt ar 32% lower than they were in 1998

Those blue bars on the left are 32% lower than they were in 1998

This means that either both the police and the CSG have grabbed the wrong end of the stick and are ignorant to the real problem or, more worryingly, they are cynically using the deaths of three drunk students to peddle an anti-drinking agenda.

When a Tab journalist asked the police what they were doing about these issues he was told that they ran a campaign during the first week of the university year attempting to educate the students about river safety. That was all he had to offer.

Pointing out a danger is a start but unfortunately in this case awareness is not a hugely preventive measure. After the deaths of three of our friends and peers we are acutely aware of how dangerous the river is. The tragic deaths of Sope Peters and Luke Pearce are still fresh in everyone’s minds and that of Euan Coulthard is even more so, it makes us all incredibly aware of the danger the river presents.

This awareness, however, did not prevent a student from falling in the river in the small hours of Friday morning, it would not have prevented his feet from stumbling or slipping on a dark, icy footpath and down a steep bank.

What would have prevented his fall, regardless of whether he was stone cold sober or barely able to stand, is a set of railings along the river.

I have walked along the path from Boathouse to Hild Bede many times. Even when sober my lanky malco-ordination means I tend to stumble at the places where it is uneven, especially when it’s dark and more than once I have found myself stepping off the path, onto the verge and perilously close to the bank.

Railings, and lights, would make things safer for everyone, not only inebriated students but ordinary people, people walking their dog, even people walking their young children.

The path that leads up the river from town is notoriously poorly lit and uneven

The path that leads up the river from town is notoriously poorly lit and uneven

In the space of a year in York, two young adults died in the river after nights out, both circumstances similar to those in Durham. The deaths, as here, hit the community and the university hard, similar emotional responses appeared and calls for river safety measures to be enhanced were heard from every angle. So York council decided that was the right choice. In October it was announced that they would be spending £100,000 to add “hundreds of feet” of railings and life rings along the river.

What’s the difference here? Are 15,000 voices (including that of the Prime Minister) wrong? Are people’s lives not worth the cost the council or landowners would incur?

I genuinely want to know the answer because I am sick of being told that if I enjoy my life as a student by drinking and going out clubbing my death in these circumstances would be, at least in part, somehow my fault.

And I’m sick of police officers having to risk their lives and enter the river because students have fallen in

The petition calls for better railings, lighting and other safety measures surrounding the river.

The petition calls for better railings, lighting and other safety measures surrounding the river.

While the Durham Safety Group attempt to battle an industry that is worth £38bn a year by trying to stop everyone drinking, they are missing the real point. As last year’s incident in Bath shows, even a small amount of alcohol can be combined with dangerous rivers to tragic effect. Attempting to teetotal an entire student city would be impossible.

Walking home by the river at night is a course of habit for many students and the river footpaths are in near constant use for getting around. They are an integral part of Durham and their perilousness is all too apparent.

Please, those that can do something, stop hiding behind a smokescreen of focusing on student binge drinking and instead address an issue that has been shown to be all too real.

Make our river safe.

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