A surge in drowning deaths in Australia in the past year has prompted the Royal Life Saving Society to call for urgent action to cut the number by half.

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Three hundred and fourteen people drowned in Australia in the 12 months to June this year – the highest number for seven years.

The figures show people in rural and remote areas were twice as likely to drown as people living in a major city. A third of all deaths were among people aged over 55.

Men accounted for 80 per cent of the deaths, and half of all children aged under four who drowned died in backyard swimming pools.

Royal Life Saving Society Australia chief executive Rob Bradley says the statistics highlight the need for urgent solutions to reduce drownings by 50 per cent by 2020.

“We are staggered and very concerned by the increase in drowning deaths and the reversal of the long-term downward trend,” he said.

Mr Bradley said governments and the community needed to adopt a range of strategies make a real impact.

He said the high number of deaths in rural and remote areas underpinned the need for improved infrastructure and access to swimming and water safety programs.

He said urgent strategies were needed to protect people aged over 55, while identification of river drowning black spots was needed.

Improved legislation on pool fencing was also needed, he said.

“Drowning rises steeply as children become more independent and participate in more high-risk activities such as swimming in rivers, dams and at the beach,” he said.

“Royal Life Saving calls for greater emphasis on building strong skills in swimming, lifesaving and drowning-prevention skills during schooling to prepare youth for the risks associated with swimming, boating, fishing in rivers, dams and the ocean.”