We all know that homicides and suicides are a huge cause of human distress, so it may surprise know that in an average year the number of deaths caused by accidents is almost thrice that of these two causes combined. According to WHO data 3.2 million deaths annually are caused by non-intentional injuries or accidents. (WHO—Injuries and Violence, 2021).
It is common to think of accidents most frequently in terms of road crashes, but again it may be a surprise to know that the number of deaths caused by various other accidents ( falls, fire, poisonings, drowning, others) is almost one a half times the number of deaths caused by road accidents ( 1.9 million compared to 1.3 million).
What is more, the distress related to injuries caused by accidents may be even higher than accident related fatalities, given the very large number of serious injuries many of which result in disabilities. According to the International Labor Organization, while the number of deaths caused by occupational accidents in a year is 350,000, the number of workers involved in non-fatal injuries in a year is 313 million (ILO–Global Trends on Occupational Accidents, 2015). The injuries caused by road crashes annually are estimated at 20 to 50 million by the WHO. The total number of accident related injuries (including those from falls and fires) is over 400 million in a year.
Many accidental injuries can disable victims in very serious ways for almost the entire life. Several accidental injuries can be extremely painful, for the victims as well as those very close to them. This is particularly true of accidents involving burn injuries and accidents involving babies. As many as about 400,000 people die in burn injuries in a year. In the age group 0-4 years, 47,000 children die in a year from burn injuries, about 57,000 die in road crashes and 58,000 die in drowning accidents. In the age-group 5-14, about 110,000 children die in a year in road crashes, 77,000 in drowning accidents, 27,000 from burning. Among those in the prime of their youth, in the age-group 15-29, around 336,000 die in road accidents and 85,000 in fires in a typical year (WHO factsheet on accidents)
Accident injuries are almost always very traumatic because by definition these occur suddenly and the entire life of an individual and a family can seriously fall out of place, for days or even weeks and months, sometimes years. These problems increase in poorer societies and in those with privatized health care systems because of difficulties in getting proper treatment, increasing the possibility of permanent disability.
As many accidents are caused by glaring negligence and violation of known safety norms, it should be possible by continuing, thoughtful, determined efforts to reduce accident related deaths and injuries by one-half. Hence it should be possible to save 1.6 million human lives and prevent over 200 million injuries in a year on this basis, apart from avoiding economic loss worth billions.
There is thus clearly the need for a very well-organized worldwide campaign to reduce all kinds of accidents. The economic losses reduced by such an effective campaign can be many times more than the costs incurred in such a campaign, although of course its biggest gains would be in terms of saving human lives and reducing human injury, pain and distress. This campaign should seek to enhance the reach of those existing efforts which have already shown promise, while at the same creating a wider framework for integrating various sides of the effort, filling in the gaps, promoting learning from best practices and overall leading to a comprehensive worldwide accident prevention effort. While prevention of accidents should be the main focus of such a campaign, at the same time this campaign should also aim at significantly improving the availability of timely and proper medical care to accident victims.
Such a campaign should seek a mobilization of people on accident prevention and at the time also seek to influence government policy on prevention issues. One priority can be to try to ensure that the government allocates more resources for accident prevention and uses it carefully to achieve best possible results, something that would be important in several countries having tight budget constraints. A specific proposal which can be useful in many countries may be to press for the creation of a National Accident Prevention Authority at the country level with provincial chapters. A national campaign can have linkages with other such campaigns in various countries with the spirit of sharing best practices and experiences. Media can play a very useful role in the success of such a campaign.
Such a campaign should make a special effort to help the poorer sections of society as they are much more at risk. A child from the lowest social class in the UK is 16 times more likely to die in a house fire than one from a wealthy family. Pedestrians, homeless people and footpath dwellers are often highly exposed to injury and death from speeding vehicles.
Perhaps the only good news to share about accidents is that these can be reduced to a very significant extent by careful planning and consistent efforts. As the WHO says, “Evidence from many countries shows that dramatic successes in preventing injuries (including accident related injuries) and violence can be achieved through concerted efforts that involve, but are not limited to the health sector.”
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.