An accident is an undesirable event that could have been prevented with planning, intelligent management of circumstances, and swift action.
Scientists who study unintentional injury avoid using the term "accident" (in favour of the more precise terms "mishap" or "cock-up") and focus on factors that increase risk of severe injury and that reduce injury incidence and severity. This does not seriously reduce the incidence of accidents ("Don't Kill the Job!") but makes accidents more pleasant.
Accidents can be serious, like choking to death on a chicken nugget, or funny, like the accidental deployment of an air-bag when your car hits a speed bump. Accidents can be a trigger for new think tanks, new laws and new inventions, such as triply reinforced Depends. Accidents are also a good reminder that, despite the rhetoric, humans are, and will always be, stratospherically dumb.
Non-physical accidents include forgetting an appointment, unintentionally revealing an affair with your best friend’s wife, or emailing a description of a colleague’s incompetence to the colleague. Indeed, nearly all uses of the
Reply all button are accidents, and the only question for study is how long it will take the victim to realize it.
Accidents during or as a consequence of work are called compensation claims. The International Labour Organisation states that more than 337 million accidents happen “on the job” each year, of which several hundred are genuine mishaps. By contrast, most leisure-related activities (including accidents “on the job”) are sports-related injuries such as strains, rope burns, and post-victory hangovers. A fast-talking employee can parlay these into work-related injuries with which to earn time off with pay. It is important that the victim of these accidents avoid taking selfies at Gold's Gym that may appear on YouTube and put his claim at risk.
The most common cause of accidents, both at home and the workplace, is stupidity. According to a 2005 survey of injuries sustained at home, which used data from the National Vital Statistics System of the United States National Center for Health Statistics, the following are the most common causes of domestic death:
- Shooting yourself
- Setting fire to yourself
- Plugging yourself into the mains
- Feeding yourself to large predators
- Falling off roofs, and
- Eating things that were not bought at Walmart
The Democratic Party tries to reduce the incidence of accidents by removing all sharp objects and things that could cause accidents, notably guns and large-denomination banknotes. The Republican Party, in contrast, attacks the core problem, with its focus on "mental health." This focus is because focusing on "stupidity" might insult its core constituency.
The United States also collects statistically valid injury data, although it is intermixed with invalid data ("confounders") and with politically motivated data ("perplexors"). The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System is administered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Agency personnel can use the system to sense an outbreak of Americans walking backward into brick walls, which would surely lead to a contagious outbreak requiring thousands to be jailed for their own safety even though tomorrow is Election Day. The program was revised in 2000 to include completely self-inflicted accidents, rather than just accidents involving the “creative use” of products, dangerous or otherwise.
Where accidents happen
The Convention on International Civil Aviation Annex 13 defines an aviation accident as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft, which takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight, until all such persons are thinly spread across three States, or lost at sea.
In over one hundred years of implementation, aviation safety has improved considerably. At the turn of the 20th century, when people started looking to the skies, anybody who attempted to fly was killed. This was due to the fact that the vessels of the day (cloaks, broomsticks, and egg whisks) not only did not produce any lift, but also offered little control over the subsequent plummet. Then the Wright Brothers came along, applied actual mathematics first, and devised an airplane that had wings and three-axis controls. Becoming the standard for flying machines, the Wrights gave the world confidence that air travel is “safe”, provided there is no accident (in which case, everyone dies).
Per passenger-mile, air travel is the safest form of transportation, statistically. This is because statisticians have a broad palette of devices with which to exclude the accidents that do occur. Not everyone was born at an airport nor lives at one, and to arrive at an airport to board one's flight, one must:
- Drive among weaving joy-riders on an urban motorway, or
- Take a train and sit with coked-up passengers with race-based grievances and hidden weapons.
Getting to and from the airport actually features the highest number of "accidents" per-mile.
However, when something goes wrong, say a wing falls off or someone sets off a bomb, the passenger is up Stratosphere Street without a parachute. When measured by fatalities per person transported, the number of air travel fatalities per person is surpassed only by nuclear warfare. This statistic is used by the insurance industry whenever it does what it does best: hand-wringing and jacking up premiums.
- Pilot error
After an aviation mishap, the largest single piece of debris remaining intact is normally the in-flight lasagne. Getting to the root cause of the accident is therefore just about impossible. Teams of accident investigators, billing by the hour, sift through the pieces with a fine-toothed comb to discover the smoking gun, among the smoking everything else. A realistic timeline for determining the actual cause is: never. This is because something so complex and so catastrophically damaged that its component parts are also damaged, would only indicate that everything failed at the same time.
Investigators work under low expectations and high pay, but after the two-year mark, families and accountants become impatient and demand answers. Fortunately, as there are never any witnesses, a cause can be invented on the fly, provided it does not ground any other aircraft or compromise the "impeccable" safety record of the airline or aircraft manufacturer. The senior investigator however, will not get away with just standing at a lectern, with a smart AAIB crest out front and a row of flags behind, and announcing:
|“||After years of sifting through wreckage, we have concluded that it was probably the pilot's fault. I mean, he was flying the thing, wasn't he?||”|
If the public need a little more to justify all the time and investment, the investigator needs to be equipped to go into detail. Planes have come down due to pilot's health, alcohol consumption, disorientation, laziness, depression, incompetence, lunacy, vertigo and being on the toilet. The aviation safety industry are getting very nervous about this and are secretly hoping to blame ISIS for the next few years, as all that remains in their arsenal is alleging that the pilot and a stewardess were trying to enter the Mile High Club.
Blaming the pilot neatly satisfies all parties. There is a scapegoat, who is not offering conflicting testimony, which obviates both a trial and a follow-on employment tribunal.
Ship accidents, although they have a similar mortality rate to aviation accidents, are slower and more spectacular. Often a sinking ship is ringed by lifeboats full of survivors, staring inwards and pondering the consequences of the slowly receding bubbles before them, and how the blame is going to be divvied-up. In the early days of crewing out hollow logs, accidents normally were limited to being dragged out on the tide, eaten by sharks or a bloody nose from a wayward oar. In the days of sail, the most common accidents were being clouted by a boom, getting lost and starving, as there was no such thing as a navigational chart and Google Maps did not work more than 12 miles offshore.
The accident involving the Titanic is the most famous of all, due to Kate Winslet's survival. Deciding to go at full speed in fog, in an area with icebergs, is considered blasé by modern standards. However, back in the day, the loss of passenger vessels on which Winslet was not on the passenger manifest was unremarkable, as ocean liner sinkings were almost a weekly occurrence with a comparable loss of life (but not a comparable gain of box office revenue).
Before the modern days of International Safety Management, drunken crews were often killed trying to climb mooring ropes rather than use the gangway, and face the cobby Chief Mate. They regularly blew product tankers up lighting cigarettes and fell asleep in the wheelhouse. They would often be woken by hitting a bridge at full speed — giving them just enough time to don a lifejacket and trot out onto the wing, as the ship quickly submerges beneath their feet.
In 1987, the crew of the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise forgot to close the bow doors, allowing the sea into the car deck and the cars into the sea. The capsizing of the vessel, and subsequent live TV coverage of the aftermath, prompted the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to introduce the safety “checklist”. This did not prevent accidents, but did make it easier to blame somebody. After Piper Alpha went up in smoke in the North Sea, with comparable television coverage to the Herald, the IMO introduced the risk assessment, another piece of paper that forced the crew member to write down the risks involved before doing the job. This did not prevent accidents either; but once the risk assessment is complete, the crew member can only really blame himself for falling off the funnel, when the bridge sounds the passenger ship's whistle, warning of the impending collision with an Egyptian crude oil tanker.
In India and the Far East, maritime accidents are a seasonal rite of each holiday period. The sinking of an overloaded, unstable and overcrowded passenger ferry, gives city-dwellers a reassuring sense that nothing ever changes.
Space agencies, astronauts, and commentators take a completely different approach to accidents, by stating very openly that going to space is bloody dangerous and mishaps will happen, meaning many many people could die, horribly. Health and Safety executives are sanguine about this risk, despite their mission statements and manic prosecution for the smallest misdemeanor. Their key tool is clever rhetoric. They inspire the public with risk-taking, which they cast as "pioneering," although this exotic "frontier" is only 60 miles straight up. Space agencies are comparable to the first sea explorers, though with kale and Belgian endives always available in the cafeteria.
They even name space ships after exploration vessels, such as the Colombia, Discovery, and Boaty McBoatface. However, space travel today is not a voyage of discovery, but just an astronaut's day at the cosmic office, where all they do is go on Twitter, play with floating spheres of water, take blood samples off each other, and pretend to run marathons. Every astronaut's favorite joke is "Well, my maths teacher said I'd never get a job staring out of the window, heh heh, how wrong was he?" Space travel has now been a part of human life longer than the Sunrise over 50 plan.
Accidents remain an inherent part of manned space travel, though, especially given NASA's notorious announcement that the chance of an accident resulting in catastrophic spacecraft break-up is "1 in 10,000," and given the ensuing committee meetings and memos to ensure that other safety predictions are not incompatible with this position. Fiery destruction of a space vehicle, resulting in the instant death of astronauts and an occasional schoolteacher, is an especially compelling case for additional funding. NASA plans to increase the effectiveness of space accidents with more comprehensive live filming of them — as two Space Shuttles went down with no "money shots" at all — and a more frequent animals-in-space program.
A motor vehicle collision occurs when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, pedestrian, animal, road debris, or other stationary obstruction, such as a temporary contraflow. Traffic collisions may result in injury, death and a road full of terrified hens or bottles of shampoo.
A 1985 study of British and American accident reports suggested that 61% of accidents were due solely to human intervention, 27% to combined intervention and circumstances, 6% to bad luck, 3% to distraction of an attractive member of the opposite sex and 3% to being generally bad-tempered. Reducing the severity of injury in road crashes is more important than the impossible task of reducing incidence.
The following factors contribute to the risk of collision:
- Vehicle design, including cars that are too fashionable for the driver to see out of.
- Speed of operation, such as impromptu drag races in school zones.
- Driver impairment due to alcohol or drugs.
- Incivility, such as flipping the bird, mouthing nasty words, running over old people who take too much time crossing the street.
Traffic collisions are organised into classifications that have vague sexual double meanings: head-ons, rear-enders and rollovers.
Some organizations avoid the term "accident" altogether, knowing full well that no amount of safety initiatives are going to improve cognitive ability and spacial awareness, and therefore road accident statistics. For example, proper signage should decrease driver error and thereby reduce crash frequency by a third or more. However, it is more likely that someone will crash into the sign because it was not there yesterday.
In contrast, the United States, embraces the term "accident," based on the idea that naming and shaming may be sufficient to change behavior, which would give police more time to stay inside Dunkin Donuts. However, it may also discourage drivers from owning up that their crash was caused by staging time trials on the Beltway during rush hour.
Vehicle softening and road modifications are generally more effective than attempting behavioral change. An exception is laws that require the use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets. These laws change behaviors drastically: Police no longer circulate in traffic but sit at the side of the road to monitor for technical violations. Another law that has reduced accidents is the one that makes car insurance completely unaffordable for teenagers.
- Harry Reid installed exercise equipment to the bathroom door, which detached and bloodied his face and upper torso. That is his story and he's sticking to it. The scars made for distractions during debate even when wearing a Brooks Brothers suit.
- Hillary Clinton ran the entire Department of State, including liaison with foreign spies, from a non-secure server deployed just above the bidet. This turned into a major accident, whose magnitude was only slightly lower than that of the explanation of it.
Elvis Presley was not, strictly speaking, a politician, but found that spending a couple hours a day on the toilet was just as perilous.
The intense interest in accidents owes not just to YouTube browsing but to the fact that they cost money. Accidents can result in death, hospitalization and financial claims, and time off work. A new branch of Easy-Jet-styled legal aid copes with the “compo” demands of chavs who claim they had “fallen asleep in the back seat and woken up with whiplash” after the crash. Although unaware of the accident taking place, several months of post-traumatic stress counselling at the taxpayer’s expense are required, as well as the insurance payout.
Soiling yourself at a wedding or falling into a wool spooling machine used to be embarrassing, but it would blow over. Today, with phone cameras providing millions of people full view of your mishap — recorded for eternity — it can be life-changing. Long-lasting psychological problems may occur. Minor but interesting accidents “go viral” and make the victims afraid to go into the public eye again. In some cases, the psychological trauma of twenty million “LOLs”, may even make them take drastic actions such as close their Facebook account.
Accident trauma commonly causes physical injuries ranging from stubbed toes, bruising and contusions, to catastrophic physical injury, including complete vaporization. However, bones often heal faster than pride, and sometimes getting killed is preferable to explaining to your father why his new BMW is at the garage, and what precisely that has to do with your new neck brace and plaster cast.
Accident investigation is an evolving process. In the early days, the perpetrator was called an idiot in front of survivors, told to mop up the mess, take some flowers to the families, and find more workers before the end of shift. Dying of old age was extremely rare, and accidental death was as common as catching the common cold — which also resulted in death.
Exponential increases in knowledge, technology, and insurance premiums has turned the status quo on its head (but not before donning a safety harness and carrying out a full risk assessment, of course). Accident investigation is lucrative for underwriters, judges, PR consultants, and survivors. This complex, multi-organizational feeding frenzy is hungry to discover where the blame lies and issue the appropriate justice. And if that is not possible, someone not to blame receives the appropriate injustice.
Once forensics have spent a week swatting bluebottles in a hot tent, investigators need to satisfy the law as well as public opinion (which is always available on the editorial page of The Guardian). Investigators must apportion blame by considering the responsible person’s status, especially if they are a family member of a local dignitary, a worker's union leader, a Clinton or a Kardashian. There are bonuses for avoiding accusations of a whitewash.
Formal accident investigation consists of two parts. The first is an investigation by an independent body, taking a subjective look at the events leading up to the tragedy, in order to produce a report that will claim to prevent future tragedies.
Independent investigators do not want to halt the frequency altogether — That would be like a turkey voting for Christmas. Investigators carry no legal power and it is important to tell them the truth, so that the costs of bribery are reduced to a manageable level. Large organizations are happy to cooperate with these investigations, and will say so during press interviews, as the public is calmed by skillful rhetoric.
The second type of investigation is the criminal investigation. It aims to put the perpetrator behind bars, or at least let the Court operate his arms and legs under the guise of Community Service. Criminal investigators must be lied to, usually by employing an expert: a lawyer who is trained to lie without making it look like lying. When choosing a solicitor, a portfolio including politics or the banking industry is a must.
The company itself emits generic public statements during the investigation about cooperating fully with investigators. They say nothing of substance, because of course there is an ongoing investigation. However, their thoughts and prayers will most certainly be with the victim's families at this difficult time.
In the past, when death or injury from accidents were routine, climbing a chimney did not require any special planning, clothing, or tools — only to find someone with a stout pair of shoes and the balls to volunteer. If that person fell off the chimney and died, accident resolution involved only a shovel and a large plastic bag. Documentation and due process meant raising a glass in respect to the fallen workmate that evening at the pub.
In those days, accident prevention was not even on the radar. What was on the radar was a squadron of Heinkel He 111s, hell-bent on making the concept of working at heights a thing of the past in cities such as London and Coventry. Plastic hard hats and high-visibility surcoats — now all the rage among Council spokespersons — did not really take off as safety measures, due to the limited protection they provided from doodlebugs and flying masonry, and the advantage such clothing gave to snipers.
As things settled down across the world, certain behaviors became unacceptable. For example:
Accidents were becoming more expensive and the public were getting tired of lugging body parts about. “Trying something” became re-branded as “taking risk”. In the construction and chemical industries, losing an arm or an eye due to a gung-ho attitude and a total disregard of personal safety, was treated as "the right stuff" for being in charge of a precarious and highly flammable environment — up until the first televised explosion.
The arrival of television in every home made it hard for accidents to be hidden beneath smouldering rubble. To be considered for major contracts, they had to be seen to be looking after their workforce by “transmitting a strong commitment to safety, with passion and credibility”; also “clear and unequivocal messages” regarding their future behavior in front of the media, with any necessary winking taking place out of the camera's view. Union Carbide in Bhopal was notoriously successful at signing the lowest bidder while avoiding accusations of murder. Employee welfare was and is secondary to the unbelievably low price of their product, provided they kept their fatalities to themselves.
It was the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 that transitioned from knee-jerk reaction — enforced only after a catastrophic event — to something more goal-based, the goal being permanent employment of government inspectors. Industry responded by rewarding plastic torches and key rings to managers who got child death rates down to less than ten a week at the local clothes factory.
Guidance was also given to Local Authorities on law enforcement (how big the brown envelope needs to be), to assist and encourage persons with duties (how to negotiate an appropriate size of brown envelope) and arrangements for research and information campaigns (based on by how much the latest brown envelope exceed expectations). HSC also offered advice on management of smoke, mirrors and Scotch mist.
Future of accident prevention
The Report proposed a victim-before-the-event approach as the best way to achieve a mishap-free society. For example, one should never change a lightbulb because it is seven feet off the ground and could result in paralysis; and it should be a criminal offense to pick gooseberries, because of the risk of back injury and stab wounds.
The United Nations has promulgated its notorious Prevention Principle, under which no one anywhere would be allowed to try anything new and/or different without proving that nothing could go wrong, to the satisfaction of a board none of whose members have ever achieved anything as complex as parking a bicycle. To date, the only result of this move is that discussing the odds of an accident is now as politically incorrect as suggesting that a known terrorist could be plotting to blow something up. To even plan for an accident is even required is considered reckless. Project planners are swiftly demoted to photocopier maintenance well before the Daily Mail gets wind of anything.
Showing passengers how to don a lifejacket aboard an airliner suggests that it could fall out of the sky and a cheap, plastic vest would protect the wearer from a 400-knot impact. Cruise ship safety videos instructing passengers how to react to a shipboard fire are likewise taboo, as it is at heart a floating steel box operating beyond the range of timely rescue.
With this strategy, accidents in the future will become a thing of the past, provided people are barred from any enterprise beyond eating and breeding, as the effort now spent to diagnose and prevent accidents is diverted to avoiding anywhere they might lurk. Eventually, high technology will give us a fully functional crystal ball — and suitable footwear to prevent injury if dropped.