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Only 56% of adults who say they can swim can perform five critical water-safety skills that could save their lives, according to a new American Red Cross survey.

Competency with all five — floating or treading water for one minute without a flotation device; stepping or jumping into water over your head and returning to the surface; treading water or floating in a full circle and then finding a way out of the water; exiting a pool without using a ladder; swimming 25 yards (the length of a standard pool) without stopping — is essential to being able to help yourself in a pool or open-water emergency, says Connie Harvey, a Red Cross water safety expert.

With Memorial Day and the start of many water-related summer activities days away, the non-profit group is broadening its annual message about learning to swim and making smart choices around the water (such as always swimming in designated areas supervised by lifeguards and always swimming with a buddy) to emphasize the importance of knowing these "basic safety and survival skills."

This is "not just something we think you should check off on your life-skills list," says Harvey, noting that 46% of 1,024 adults in the new survey say they have had an experience in the water when they thought they might drown; 20% say they know someone who nearly drowned; and 19% say they know someone who drowned. The overall survey has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

People who have convinced themselves that they can do more in the water than they're capable of run the risk of endangering themselves or others, says Harvey.

Among other findings from the study:

•33% of black adults say they can perform all five basic swimming skills, compared to 51% of whites; 84% of whites and 69% of blacks say they can swim.

•56% of adults who say they can swim say they have never taken a professional lesson; 37% say they taught themselves.

•Fear of the water (30%) is the most commonly cited barrier keeping non-swimming adults from learning to swim.

•39% of parents of children ages 4-17 report that their child can perform all five basic swimming skills; 92% say that their child is likely to participate in water activities this summer.

•20% of parents expect that their child will take swimming lessons this summer.

A CDC report released last week noted that about 21,000 children and young adults drowned from 1999 through 2010, and that drowning is responsible for more deaths among children aged 1–4 years than any other cause except birth defects. For people aged 29 and younger, drowning is one of the top three causes of unintentional injury death.

A 2010 study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation and conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 70% of black children and nearly 60% of Hispanic children have low or no swimming ability, compared to 40% of white children.

To help address this problem, the Red Cross today launched a campaign to reduce the drowning rate by 50,000 in 50 targeted cities over the next three to five years through increased swimming lessons, water-safety education programs, and added training opportunities for lifeguards and water-safety instructors.

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