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Diving Into Danger

For many of us, summer means spending time around a backyard pool. When it comes to water safety parents generally worry about drowning. But there's another very serious and very real danger you need to know about.

CBS This Morning Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum reported from the Mary Waite swimming pool on Mercer Island, Washington, with an important summertime warning.

For lots of kids, the diving board is the best part of the pool. A public pool is designed for safe diving. But, as we discovered, there are millions of backyard pools that look perfectly safe when they're not. That means your kids could be diving into danger.

It's a scene that will be repeated countless times in countless backyard pools across the country this summer. Millions of kids will dive into these backyard pools unaware of the hidden hazard that will leave a few of them with crippling injuries.

"I just remember doing the dive and then coming up and just floating in the water and I pretty much knew something was wrong because I couldn't feel nothing and was just floating there," said diving accident victim Shawn Meneely.

That was just five days after his 16th birthday.

Today, the former high school athlete is learning to drive again, getting around in a van he can control with very limited arm movements.

The accident that left him a paraplegic happened in a split second on a hot summer afternoon.

Meneely was diving into a backyard pool. It has what's called a Hopper Bottom design. He broke his neck when he hit his head on the bottom of the pool; not under the diving board but on what's called the transition wall, the incline where the bottom slopes up to the shallow end.

Experts say that in millions of backyard pools, this transition wall is too close to the diving board. And, it is too easy for tall, athletic young men like Shawn to crash into that wall.

It happens every summer. David Clark was 20 when a home video camera caught the dive that broke his neck ten years ago.

Friends pulled him from the pool, and quick medical attention saved his life. But like Meneely, it's a life very different from the one he knew before.

Experts say this sort of accident doesn't happen in large public pools because they're designed with plenty of room in the diving well, the deep area underneath and in front of the diving board.

The Red Cross thinks there should be 11 ½ feet of water under the board. And the transition wall should start at least 16 ½ feet from the tip of the board.

Compare that to the current standard for backyard pools, which is just 7 ½ feet deep with the slope beginning only 7 feet from the board. Some experts say that doesn't leave enough room for error. The heavier you are, the bigger you are, the more dangerous it is.

Professor Milton Gabrielsen is an expert on swimming pool design and diving accidents. He says the tests he conducted more tha 20 years ago should have convinced the swimming pool industry of the danger. Films show divers clearly crossing a line representing the standard for home pools back then.

Other tests including those conducted for Meneely's lawyers show the same thing, that the standards are not always sufficient.

Those standards are set by the National Spa and Pool Institute. NSPI would not talk to CBS News for this story, but they insist pools built to their standards are safe when divers dive correctly.

That includes doing what's called "steering up" to avoid hitting the transition wall. Olympic Diver Greg Louganis demonstrates the technique in a video funded by the institute.

But what about divers who don't do it right? Critics say home pools should be designed with a wider margin of safety.

Professor Gabrielsen says for 20 years now, the swimming pool industry has ignored his calls for larger diving areas. He has strong opinions about why the standards have not significantly changed. "And I'm afraid what they're trying to do is protect their members because all the members have been building bad pools," said Gabrielsen.

Meneely sued the National Pool and Spa Institute, and last year he won a judgement of more than $6 million. But, he says, money is not what this is all about.

"We want to make them change their standards. We want them to know that what they've been doing is wrong and we want them to have to change what they've been doing for 25 years," said Meneely.

While the argument continues about whether the standards are adequate, something else to think about is that there are thousands of pools around the country (nobody knows how many) that don't even meet those standards. Those pools were built by homeowners, or they had diving boards added to them later.

Most at risk are tall, athletic young men in their teens or 20s. And in most cases, those who get hurt are guests who are not familiar with the pool. If you have younger children, they aren't much at risk for this kind of injury. When they get older, you just might want to remove that diving board.

Homeowners should first get out a tape measure. The experts said you want to have 10 to 11 feet of water under the board, and the upslope should start at least 16 feet from the end of the board. Anything less than that and you might want to remove the board.

For more on pool safety standards click here for a 60 Minutes II segment.

And, for more on pool safety from CBS This Morning, click here.

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