You can't ban accidents

The refusal to accept that misfortune and adversity are part of the human experience is turning the 'blame game' into Britain's national sport.

Sometimes highly educated people can be very silly - and even a world-renowned publication like the British Medical Journal (BMJ) can say daft things.

A recent BMJ editorial claimed that there are no such things as accidents - so it is banning the word ‘accident’ from its pages. The editorial defends its right to police the English language on the grounds that the word accident gives the wrong impression about the events it describes.

‘Accident’ is usually used in association with an unexpected and unwelcome event. But the BMJ argues that since most negative outcomes are preventable, the use of the word is inappropriate. It is purging the word from its pages to draw attention to the fact that ‘injuries of all kinds’ can be predicted, and therefore prevented. The BMJ even questions whether injuries received in an earthquake or other natural disasters ought to be called accidental, since ‘preventive steps can be taken by avoiding dangerous places at times of risk’. How long before phrases like ‘bad luck’, ‘misfortune’ and ‘acts of God’ are targeted by the BMJ’s zealous censors?

The attempt to ban the word accident is not simply a matter of linguistic significance. We live in a world that finds it difficult to accept the fact that misfortune can strike anybody at anytime. And it seems that the healthier our lives become and the longer we live, the more we find it hard to believe that injury is often just caused by bad luck.

Today, people are encouraged to look for some hidden meaning or motive behind their injury - and increasingly the cause of people’s illness is attributed to some malevolent external power. There is a growing tendency to conclude that anything disagreeable that happens to us is directly attributable to the action of another person or institution. And this refusal to accept that misfortune and adversity are part of the human experience is fast turning the ‘blame game’ into Britain’s national sport.

Litigation has become one of the UK’s growth industries, as people are continually told that somebody somewhere is to blame for their problems. It Was Just an Accident - or was it? - a leaflet published by Accident Line - states that even ‘if you believe that your injury was just an accident, and that no one was to blame, it’s still worth talking to a specialist solicitor’. It adds that ‘many people who believed at first that their accident could not be blamed on anyone but themselves have gone on to make successful claims’.

Like the BMJ, the promoters of compensation culture seek to teach people that what they thought was an accident can actually be blamed on somebody else. According to Professor John Adams of University College London, the BMJ’s attack on the idea of accidental injury will help reinforce Britain’s litigious climate. He believes that abolishing the word accident helps to turn bad luck into culpable negligence, as if there is always somebody to blame for life’s misfortunes.

Inevitably, the idea that ‘it is not my fault’ is fast spreading from the field of healthcare to other parts of life. There are cases where former students who have done poorly in their exams blame their teachers for their results - with some of them even suing their schools to gain compensation.

This tendency to blame others for our predicament represents a profoundly disturbing statement about the human condition. Blame culture assumes that most of the time people are passive, pathetic creatures, whose lives are determined by forces outside their control. It separates people from the consequences of their action, and offers a ready-made excuse for not taking responsibility.

The BMJ justifies its crusade against the A-word as an attempt to raise awareness about the preventable nature of injuries, believing that such awareness will ‘help reduce the incidence and severity of injuries’. Preventing injuries is of course a worthwhile objective - but not all injuries can be prevented. And nor should we seek to employ all measures available to prevent all injuries that are preventable.

For example, there is a foolproof way of preventing all skiing injuries - ban people from taking to the slopes in the first place. Cyclists’ injuries can be prevented by forbidding people from riding bikes. Recently I talked to a group of teachers who had decided to ban children from playing with skipping ropes - because since children sometimes fall while skipping, surely the best way to prevent accidental falls was to prevent the game. But an intelligent society can surely see that the benefit (and fun) that children gain from skipping far outweighs the risk of a few bruised knees.

An enlightened society recognises that human beings need to take risks, and that in so doing they will sometimes experience adverse outcomes. Risk is part of life - and a society that takes the view that preventing injury is an end in itself will have to ban sports and other creative and challenging activities. However, accidents cannot be banned out of existence. To ban accidents you would have to ban life. Only the dead can be certain that they will not suffer pain or injury through some misfortune.

In reality, bad luck and misfortune can strike us even in the safest of environments. According to statistics, some 40 people a year require emergency hospital treatment because they incorrectly lifted tea cosies off the teapot, causing the pot to drop on the floor. Does that mean we should stop drinking tea? More than 3000 people a year receive medical treatment for injuries incurred while falling over laundry baskets. Should we abolish laundry baskets? According to the UK Department of Trade and Industry, more people die due to accidents in the home than as a result of road accidents: claiming that about 76 people die in domestic accidents each week in the UK, compared to 66 people per week in road accidents (1). But surely even the most zealous advocate of injury prevention would not propose banning people from living at home.

A mature society needs to accept the fact that sometimes things will go wrong. Of course, the benefits of taking a risk needs to be balanced against the consequence of negative outcomes. But the trick is to manage, not evade, risks. Our lives have become safer precisely because many people in the past were prepared to try out new ways of doing things. Sometimes accidents occurred, but through learning from such experiences the world became a safer place.

Those who want to ban accidents and gain safety will find that what they get instead are obsessions. And purging the English dictionary of uncomfortable words is one obsession that we can well do without.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation
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Visit Frank Furedi’s website

Read on:

Name, blame, shame and claim, by Tracey Brown

Adding insult to injury, by Josie Appleton

(1) Home hazards ‘kill more than cars’, BBC Online, 20 March 2001

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