An accident is an unplanned event that results in bodily injury and/or property damage. Accidents claimed 89,703 lives in the United States in 1995,41,786 of which were motor-vehicle accidents. The death rate for unintentional injuries due to accidents is higher for males than for females in all age groups and higher for blacks than for whites after age 24 (Rosenberg et al., 1996). The death rate for firearm injuries is higher for males than females and higher for blacks than whites. The highest death rate due to motor-vehicle crashes occurs among Native American males, followed by black males, Hispanic males, and white males, in that order. The lowest death rate for motor-vehicle crashes in the United States is for Asians-maleand female (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995).

The National Safety Council classifies accidents according to type and class. The type of accident indicates where it occurred or what caused it. Motor-vehicle accidents are the most common type, followed by falls, poisoning, drowning, fires and burns, suffocation (ingested), firearms, and gas/vapor poisoning. As shown in Figure 3-5, the death rate due to motor vehicles

Under 1 1-4 5-14 15-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65-74 75-84 85+

Age (Years)

Figure 3-5 Age-specific death rates for accidents and adverse effects, 1994. (Based on data from Anderson, Kochanek, & Murphy, 1997.)

Under 1 1-4 5-14 15-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65-74 75-84 85+

Age (Years)

Figure 3-5 Age-specific death rates for accidents and adverse effects, 1994. (Based on data from Anderson, Kochanek, & Murphy, 1997.)

increases only slightly with age, but the frequency of deaths caused by other types of accidents as a group rises dramatically in later life. The rise in accidental deaths in old age is attributable in large measure to an increase in deaths due to falls, the second most common cause of death after age 55. Poisoning by solids and liquids is the second most common cause of accidental death for adults aged 25 through 54. With the exception of deaths due to falls, fires and burns, and the ingestion of food or other objects, deaths caused by accidents are more than twice as numerous for males as for females (National Safety Council, 1996).

The class of an accident is determined by where (in what location) it occurred. As shown in Table 3 -1, the frequency of accidental injuries in 1995 varied with both the class or place of the accident and the age of the victim. Falls are the most frequent type of accidents in the home, followed by poisoning, fires, suffocation, firearms, and drowning, in that order. Regarding places in the home where accidents are most likely to occur, they are most common in bedrooms, kitchens, and the yard. Next to motor-vehicle accidents, falls are the most common class of accidents occurring in public. Falls are also the second-ranked cause of death and the third-ranked cause of injury from work-related accidents. However, careful attention to safety rules and practices in

Table 3-1 Number of Episodes of Accidental Injuries to Adults in United States in 1994, by Age and Class or Place of Accident

Table 3-1 Number of Episodes of Accidental Injuries to Adults in United States in 1994, by Age and Class or Place of Accident

Class or place




65 +

Moving motor vehicle















Place of accident






Street, highway





Industrial place










All episodes





Source: Data from National Safety Council, 1996.

Source: Data from National Safety Council, 1996.

job and other organizational settings has lowered the accident rates in those places (National Safety Council, 1996).

Accidents are more likely to occur at night than during the day, on weekends, during holidays, during the summer and fall months, and during times of economic expansion. Unsafe conditions or situations do not typically cause accidents by themselves; they must be combined with unsafe acts. Consumption of alcohol and drugs is a particularly important unsafe act that is closely related to motor-vehicle accidents and fatalities. Speeding, failing to yield the right of way, and driving on the wrong side of the road are other unsafe driving practices.

Unsafe acts vary with chronological age, health, fatigue, intelligence, personality, and other "person" variables. For example, motor-vehicle accidents are the primary cause of accidental death in the late teens and twenties (see Figure 3-5). Male drivers around age 20 are more likely than those in other age groups to be involved in and killed in automobile crashes or to kill pedestrians. Unlike the slower response times, greater cautiousness, and physical disabilities in adults over age 65, which contribute to the somewhat higher accident rate in this age group than in middle-aged adults, the higher accidental death rate in teenagers and young adults reflects inexperience, excessive risk taking, alcohol or drug abuse, and desire for peer approval. Other causes of accidents and accidental death also vary with age. For example, drownings are the second cause of accidental death prior to the forties, and falls are second from ages 45 to 74.

Death rates for non-motor-vehicle accidents are particularly high after age 65, when sensorimotor abilities decline and people spend more time in the home. Older adults are less likely than younger ones to see a small object on the floor or counter, an open door or other projecting object, or to smell something that is burning. And even when a potentially dangerous condition or situation is perceived, an older adult may not respond quickly or precisely enough.

The frequency of injuries of various types sustained in accidents also varies with the sex of the victim. The fact that the number of individuals in the 18-44 year age range is greater than the number in the 45 and over range who are involved in accidents accounts, at least in part, for the greater number of injuries in the lower adult age bracket. However, sex interacts with age: The number of injuries sustained by women between 18 and 44 years of age is less than the number sustained by men in that age range, but the number of injuries for women who are 45 years and older is greater than that for men of the same age. This difference may be attributable in part to the fact that there are more older women than older men, and that older women who sustain falls are more likely than older men to be seriously injured (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990a).

Although the notion of an accident-prone personality has not stood the test of time, research evidence indicates that personality has some relationship to accidents. It has been found, for example, that, as a group, accident repeaters are less emotionally stable, more hostile toward authority, and higher in anxiety (Shaw & Sichel, 1971). In another study, accident repeaters had more problems getting along with other people, and their work histories were less stable than those of nonrepeaters (Niemcryk, Jenkins, Rose, & Hurst, 1987). From these and other studies (e.g., Hansen, 1989), it can be concluded that personality variables are related to all kinds of accidents in all sorts of populations.

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