Highway-safety experts rarely, if ever, use the word “accident”— they speak of “crashes” instead. That’s because “accident” implies a random event, out of human control, whereas a “crash” is something that can be predicted and avoided. Many “accidents” in the home (such as falls and burns) and workplace are also predictable and could be prevented if we simply thought about them differently and took precautions.
Every year about 30 million Americans are injured seriously enough to end up in the emergency room—and many more simply go to their doctors for injuries or limp around untreated. Unintentional injuries are a leading cause of death and disability, especially among the young as well as the very old.
Personality or circumstance?
We all know people who seem to have one accident after another. Is there such a thing as an “accident-prone” personality? This remains controversial. Some studies have found links between accidents and certain traits—such as over-confidence, aggressiveness, chronic anger and lack of conscientiousness—but overall the research has yielded inconsistent results. In any case, we all may become “prone” to injury because of factors such as the following:
Lack of sleep. This impairs performance and judgment behind the wheel and elsewhere. In particular, people with sleep apnea (characterized by heavy snoring and disrupted sleep) are at risk for injuries and crashes.
Alcohol. Besides causing crashes, alcohol makes drinkers more susceptible to falls, burns, and cuts. The same is true for people using marijuana and other illegal drugs.
Medications. Many can make you confused, groggy or dizzy and can dull reflexes. Sleeping pills and nighttime tranquilizers can leave you drowsy the next day. And old-fashioned antihistamines (like Benadryl), used in many over-the-counter sleep aids, can leave you impaired the next day even if you don’t feel drowsy.
Poor health. People in poor health are more susceptible to injury, possibly because they tire more easily, may not sleep well and take lots of medicine. Being physically unfit can lead to balance problems. Frail older people who live alone are at high risk. People with mental illness may also be accident-prone.
Emotional stress. Most of us can recall a time when we were distracted or upset and then had an accident. Chronic emotional stress, deep grief, and serious emotional problems also increase the risk. Studies of athletes, for example, have found that players under severe emotional (or physical) stress are more vulnerable to injury. Moreover, an initial serious injury can, in turn, produce stress that makes entire families vulnerable, so that injuries often cluster. A study in Pediatrics last year found that when a child was seriously injured, there was a 20 percent chance that a sibling would be injured (or the first child re-injured) during the next three months. And the new accidents weren’t necessarily similar to the initial ones.
Distraction. This has become a big research area for safety experts, as people spend more time multitasking—phoning or texting while driving, for instance, or texting while walking.
Poor “situational awareness.” Many people misperceive risk in a given situation or overestimate their ability to control it and therefore don’t follow safety rules or take precautions. Thus, young men tend to have the most crashes and injuries, since they tend to feel invulnerable and take the most risks.
Unsafe products and environments. Not all factors are under your control, of course. The government can and should help keep people safe—by building safer roads, mandating safety features for cars and machinery, working with industry to ensure occupational and product safety and keeping track of injuries and accidents so that risks can be reduced.
Some accident insurance
Take the obvious steps. Don’t drink and drive. Wear safety belts. Don’t phone or text while driving or walking. Fence in swimming pools. If you own a firearm, keep it locked up and unloaded. Try to get enough sleep. Read labels on medications to see if they can cause impairment, or ask the pharmacist. Make your home fireproof, childproof and fall-proof. And so on.
If you’ve been having more than your share of accidents, or a member of your family has, take that as a warning sign. If you’ve been under lots of stress, consider getting professional help. At a minimum, slow down, try to block out distractions, and be mindful of what you are doing. Know your limitations and follow safety rules, even for something as simple as climbing a ladder or slicing a bagel.