Accidents have been a common feature of childhood in Western and non-Western cultures for much of human history, but their nature and location, as well as whom they affect, have shifted over time. There is a striking amount of continuity in the physical causes of children's mishaps; fire, falls, and being crushed by carriages or other vehicles are hazards that transcend time and place. The family dwelling has remained a common site of mishaps, especially for younger children. Contrary to being a haven–as the nascent middle class defined homes in the nineteenth century– dwellings may have been the site where children faced the most pernicious and intractable risks. Even so, over time, a bevy of new types of accidents have appeared and supplanted older dangers. For example, dangers such as electrical shock, automobile accidents, and accidents involving poisonous chemicals replaced hazards such as "laying over" (or rolling onto children sharing the parental bed) and those associated with caring for animals.
Children, of course, faced many dangers outside their homes, which increased during periods of rapid economic change, such as when the industrial revolution swept Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, with the triumph of an urban society and especially the advent of the automobile, the dangers associated with public spaces, including particularly roads, increased in severity. For example, in modern automobile societies, car accidents have become the leading source of accidents to children–especially to teenagers.
The Medieval Period
In medieval Europe, children faced a variety of hazards, including fire, animal bites, falling objects, drowning, scalding, laying over, or being crushed by a passing cart. These dangers appear to have varied little from rural to urban settings, with fire posing perhaps the most dramatic threat, especially for infants. More than one-third of the children listed in coroner's inquests in medieval England died from fires in their cradles, and approximately one-fifth of the children under three died in house fires. To modern audiences, the image of a sow devouring a baby, which appears in Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale," borders on the bizarre, but it almost certainly reflected the common threat that animals posed to children–and one all too frequently recorded in official records.
In a pattern that has remained more or less constant from medieval times through the modern era, the home was the place of greatest hazard, especially for younger children. According to coroner's records from medieval England, most fatal childhood accidents occurred at home. About 49 percent occurred in a child's own home; approximately 20 percent occurred in other people's homes; 20 percent occurred in public places; and 12 percent occurred in bodies of water. Accidents tended to occur during the busiest part of a parents' day–early in the morning or at noon. Nearly half of all fatal accidents happened during the summer months, as families turned their attention toward the fields and their agricultural labors, suggesting that at least part of the cause for such mishaps can be attributed to parental neglect or moments of inattention.
In premodern Europe, most records of accidents come from parish and government records. Accidents constituted only a small portion of childhood mortality, estimated by demographers at between 30 and 50 percent for infants. They are also evidenced in lullabies and songs of the period. Death in childhood was so common in the period and accidents did not represent a chief cause, and thus were probably not of major concern to most families. Even so, basic child-rearing strategies reveal at least some concern about accidental death. Swaddling was commonly practiced as a way of protecting children from "chills." It also may have been practiced to keep infants safe and immobile–unable to crawl into problems at home, or even out of the house onto streets. Paradoxically swaddling may have facilitated behaviors that actually may have endangered infants. For example, tossing babies from one person to another was a popular form of amusement–something easily accomplished with swaddled children–and one that frequently led to accidents.
As children grew older and stepped outside the protection of their parent's or caregiver's attentions, the dangers facing children changed and new dangers presented themselves. In medieval times, fire accounted for fewer accidental deaths among older children than among their younger siblings. Yet older children's mobility increasingly figured into serious accidents, with play accounting for 65 percent of all fatal accidents. As children aged, they also stepped into the gender roles that would accompany them throughout their lives, and the dangers they faced began to be differentiated. For example, little girls tended to have more accidents in the home and boys were more likely to have fatal mishaps while accompanying their fathers into the fields. Even so, home remained a site of persistent hazard, with 60 percent of boys and 79 percent of girls being injured in or very near the family dwelling. However, by the time that boys reached five or six, the majority of accidents they experienced occurred in the fields, often with tools, animals, and vehicles. By contrast, the home remained the most constant source of danger for girls until at least age eight or nine.
Industrialization brought dramatic changes to Western societies in the nineteenth century, reshaping both childhood and the nature of accidents. The introduction of a cash economy, and of mechanized factories and production processes, exposed everyone in society, including children, to entirely new dangers, as did rapidly changing urban settings, with their poor health conditions. Yet in these new urban and industrial environments, a host of other factors–such as high mortality rates, unprecedented rates of accidents for all workers, and extreme societal dislocation–childhood mishaps did not receive wide attention. When children's accidents did receive reformers' attentions, they did so in the context of broader efforts to address workplace safety, an increased focus on a wide range of issues associated with children's welfare, and concerns about deteriorating health conditions in urban settings.
The new cash economy drove children, and especially boys, into the paid labor force at earlier and earlier ages. For example, in England and the United States, industry made frequent use of children's labor, thus exposing them to new dangers. In Rhode Island, by 1801, one hundred children between four and ten years old worked at Slater's mill, cleaning raw cotton, tending spindles, removing and attaching bobbins, and knotting broken threads. In about the same period, in the coal mines of Lancashire, England, children under twelve accounted for as much as 25 percent of the labor force and suffered the same rash of injuries that struck their parents–fingers cut off by machinery, limbs and skulls crushed by vehicles, and fractures resulting from falls. Yet the presence of children under ten or twelve years of age in factories appears to have been a relatively short-lived phenomenon. By the 1870s, this practice became relatively rare in England and the United States. Reformers' efforts, an increased emphasis on schooling, the influx of adult immigrants, and automation in factories, among other things, all contributed to the decline of child labor in manufacturing–and of children's propensity to be victims of factory accidents.
As industrial society emerged in the nineteenth century, children's exposure to dangerous conditions at home and in the community varied with their social class and ethnic or racial origins. The children of relatively poor families faced more hazards because of substandard housing and hazardous conditions, and because their parents had less time to monitor them in the home, neighborhood, or at work–which these children encountered at younger ages than did those of the middle class. Likewise, economic and political refugees migrating to new homes faced dangerous treks to unfamiliar surroundings that exposed their children to a range of hazards. For example, the children of immigrants to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century were pushed outward into the streets from their overcrowded homes. These children discovered a host of delights and dangers; they played in freshly dug tunnels and rode subways. They experienced automobiles at ground level and saw electricity light their world. The streets–full of possibilities and dangers–were their world as much as home, parents, and school were.
At about this time, accidents in childhood slowly began to emerge as a broad societal concern. Individual family homes began to be viewed less as a safe haven from the world than as a place of danger. Already in 1897, Frances Fisher Wood noted in her landmark advice manual, Infancy and Childhood, that windows should be barred, open fires shielded, and stairways gated in order to protect children from hazards lurking in family dwellings. Even so, Wood devoted only this brief mention to accidents and as late as 1914 advice guru Dorothy Canfield Fisher made fun of those who took safety precautions in the home. Yet accidents were rapidly replacing disease as the leading cause of death for children early in the twentieth century United States. Indeed, by the 1910s, accidents were the single leading cause of death among children between five and fourteen years old, although among toddlers (one to four year olds) accidents did not eclipse influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diphtheria as the primary cause of death until the 1940s.
Not surprisingly, in the teens and 1920s, societal clubs, Progressive politicians, and workplace safety organizations, such as the National Safety Council, began to focus attention on dangers in the home. The responsibility for keeping children safe, not surprisingly, emerged in a gendered fashion, as home economists and others argued that women should manage households and their dangers in much the same way that their husbands managed the economy and safety in industry and the public sector.
Efforts to control these hazards shifted, though not completely, away from mothers and families beginning in the 1930s, when the National Safety Council and public health organizations began to collect statistics on accidents in the home and community, including especially the hazards of automobiles. President Herbert Hoover's White House Conference on Child Health and Protection was one of the first explicit recognitions of the rights held by children, including the right to health and to safe dwellings and schools. In 1960, the White House Conference on Children and Youth targeted accidents to children.
In the twentieth century, technology played a paradoxical role in the history of accidents. As new technologies, such as electricity and a related range of labor-saving appliances, became fixtures in homes and communities, the hazards faced by children and their families changed. Perhaps more than any other innovation, automobiles transformed the landscape of accidents. In Upton Sinclair's muckraking 1906 novel The Jungle, an automobile is responsible for killing a young child, and following World War II, fatal motor vehicle accidents became increasingly prevalent, so much so that by the 1970s motor vehicles were the major sources of accidental deaths to children.
Yet, as technology presented new dangers, new safety devices promised protection in a consumer society in which safety increasingly could be purchased in the burgeoning number of shopping malls. Already in the 1950s, consumers could purchase poisons, chemicals, and medicines protected by childproof caps. In the 1960s, safety restraints became common features in automobiles–one mandated in the United States by the federal government. In the 1970s, battery-operated smoke detectors made their way into the marketplace, and their use was also mandated in many legal codes. The United States government pushed these technological consumer solutions through various institutional means, such as the National Highway Safety Bureau (later the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), which was established by the Highway Safety Act of 1966 and National Commission on Product Safety that resulted from the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1970. Such broad efforts often included a special focus on child safety, which led to the introduction of child car safety seats and labeling on games and toys of potential hazards to children. Childproofing –especially the home–became a buzzword as consumer and technological solutions to the problem of accidents in childhood proliferated late in the twentieth century.
By the late twentieth century, accidents remained the leading cause of childhood death in Western industrial countries, but efforts to control them achieved results and the rate of fatal accidents diminished. Even so, in the industrial world, childhood accidents continue to plague poor families significantly more than middle-class and wealthy families, and in the nonindustrial world childhood accidents take a distant back seat to more pressing concerns about disease, poverty, and war.
See also: Infant Mortality.
Burnham, John. 1996. "Why Did the Infants and Toddlers Die? Shifts in Americans' Ideas of Responsibility for Accidents– From Blaming Mom to Engineering." Journal of Social History 29, no. 4 (summer): 817–834.
Cooter, Roger, and Bill Luckin, eds. 1997. Accidents in History. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Hanawalt, Barbara A. 1986. The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hiner, N. Ray, and Joseph M. Hawes. 1985. Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Reinier, Jacqueline. 1996. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775–1850. New York: Twayne.
Tarr, Joel, and Mark Tebeau. 1996. "Managing Danger in the Home Environment, 1900–1940." Journal of Social History 29, no. 4 (summer): 797–816.
"Accidents." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/accidents
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ACCIDENTS. The United States saw a substantial decrease in accident-related deaths in the twentieth century. Despite a greater number and variety of motor vehicles, firearms, poisonous products, and dangerous pastimes and leisure activities, the nation achieved a 55 percent reduction in deaths from unintentional injuries from 1912 to 2000.
The National Safety Council, a federally chartered nonprofit organization, attributes the decline in accidental deaths to a number of factors, including improvements in technology such as seat belts and air bags, which have helped curb the number of road fatalities. Evolving legislation and proactive safety education has also contributed to safer living, as have broad social changes: the shift from agriculture and manufacturing to an information-based economy has lowered the number of hazardous jobs.
Motor vehicle accidents were by far the largest source of unintentional-injury deaths, claiming 43,501 lives in 1998—roughly 2.5 times more than falls, the second most common cause. Males were twice as likely to die in a car crash as females, but the gender gap was almost nonexistent for falling victims, with twice as many men and women over the age of 75 falling to their deaths as all other age groups combined. Men were nearly three times more likely to die of the third most common accident, poisonings, and four times more likely to drown. The fifth leading cause of accidental death, choking, was fairly evenly distributed between men and women, and, like falls, increased dramatically with age.
Road fatalities in the United States decreased by 17 percent between 1990 and 2000; however, the number of people who died of accidental death in the home rose. Deadly falls, more than half of which happened at home, were up by nearly 40 percent; and poisonings, led by pharmaceutical and narcotics overdoses, more than doubled. The most accident-prone states in 2000 were Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee; the least accident-prone, with approximately half as many unintentional-injury deaths per capita, were Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Other National Safety Council findings reveal an interesting snapshot of America at the end of the twentieth century. Between 1998 and 2000, light delivery vehicles for the U.S. Postal Service had the highest number of accidents per mile for all truck fleets. In 1999, basketball accounted for the greatest number of sports injuries, followed by bicycle riding and football. In 1999, more hospital emergency room visits were related to people using their beds (455,027) than handling knives (446,225).
National Tragedies and Blunders
The most notorious accidents in American history have accounted for relatively few deaths compared to the lives lost from everyday injuries.
Great Chicago Fire (8–10 October 1871). An unusual autumn drought and heat wave, combined with high winds, allowed a small barn blaze to grow into a conflagration that ravaged much of Chicago. As the inferno spread, flames leapt over rivers; firefighters dynamited entire buildings in a vain attempt to slow the fire's progress. The blaze, which only died down when rain began to fall on 10 October, killed between two and three hundred people, destroyed approximately 18,000 buildings, and caused $200 million in damages. Increased fire safety awareness and fire-fighting capabilities, along with a revolution in building materials—from wood to brick and steel—helped decrease fire-related deaths by almost two thirds between 1913 and 2000, even as the population nearly tripled.
Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire (25 March 1911). Just minutes before quitting time, employees of a Manhattan clothing manufacturer were trapped by a flash fire that began in a pile of oil-soaked rags. Due to cramped conditions and a lack of adequate exits, 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, either died in the blaze or leapt to their deaths from windows eight to ten stories above the street. The scope of the tragedy prompted sweeping reforms in factory safety regulations, aided in part by the efforts of the National Safety Council, formed two years after the tragedy. In 2000, workplace accidents were the smallest category of unintentional-injury deaths, showing a decrease of 90 percent since 1912, despite a quadrupling of the workforce and a ninefold increase in productivity.
Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident (28 March 1979). A dangerous combination of mechanical and human failures brought a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant to the brink of catastrophic meltdown. The crisis was quickly and successfully addressed and no one was killed, but the accident sparked a major public outcry. While energy officials insisted that the surrounding area was not contaminated, scientists still disagree on whether people living near the plant suffered adverse effects from radiation vented during the crisis. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, no health problems or deaths have been directly related to nuclear power in the United States, but no new nuclear plants have been built in the country since the Three Mile Island event.
American Airlines Flight 191 (25 May 1979). Shortly after taking off from Chicago's O'Hare airport, a DC-10 lost its left wing engine, causing it to veer out of control and crash to the ground, killing all aboard. The deadliest commercial airliner crash in American history claimed 272 lives and prompted the grounding of all DC-10s in the United States pending investigation of, among other issues, maintenance procedures. Although airline accidents are major headline grabbers, the number of lives lost in such accidents does not equal even 1 percent of the deaths caused by passenger automobile accidents between 1997 and 1999.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (24 March 1988). A reportedly inebriated and fatigued crew ran an oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, dumping 11 million gallons of oil into the water and devastating local wildlife. Exxon spent $2.2 billion on the cleanup effort and twelve years later declared the environment "healthy and robust." The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the area had made a remarkable recovery but remained an "ecosystem in transition." While the accident was the worst of its kind in American history, it has since dropped off the list of the world's 50 largest oil spills.
Flexner, Stuart, and Doris Flexner. The Pessimist's Guide to History: From the Big Bang to the New Millennium. Updated ed. New York, Harper Perennial, 2000.
National Safety Council. Injury Facts, 2000. Itasca, Ill.: The Council, 2000.
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Accidents ★½ 1989 (R)
A scientist discovers that his invention has been stolen and is going to be used to cause worldwide havoc. He becomes concerned and spends the remainder of the movie trying to relieve himself of anxiety. 90m/C VHS . Edward Albert, Leigh Taylor-Young, Jon Cypher; D: Gideon Amir.
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In more precise language, accidents should be referred to as "unintentional injuries." The contention over the use of the word accident has to do with the
issue of preventability. In common usage, the term accident implies that the event was random and nonpreventable. But for "accidents," whether resulting in death or lesser injury, such an implication is incorrect, hence the term accident is best avoided. In June 2001, the British Medical Journal took the position of "Banning the inappropriate use of 'accident' in our pages" (Davis, p. 1,320). Injuries may be intentional or unintentional. This article focuses on the latter category.
Injury events are those in which "(1) injury occurs over a relatively short period of time–seconds or, at most, minutes, (2) the harmful outcome was not sought, and (3) the injury resulted either from one of the forms of physical energy in the environment (kinetic, chemical, thermal, electrical, or ionizing radiation) or because normal body mechanisms for using such energy were blocked by external means (such as drowning)" (Waller, p. 8). Unintentional injuries may be described simply as "unforeseen incident(s), where the intent to cause harm, injury or death was absent, but which resulted in injury" (International Classification of External Causes of Injury).
How Injury Is Classified
The World Health Organization's (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD) specifies codes for diseases and injury. Injury, unlike diseases or natural causes, is captured by two distinct sets of codes, those for the nature of the injury and those for the external causes of the injury. For external causes, a single code is assigned that combines both the intentionality or manner of the injury and the
mechanism or cause of the injury. The intent of injury takes precedence in the classification, with mechanism of injury being coded within an intent category. The manner of the injury can be unintentional or "accidental," intentional (including self-inflicted and assault injuries), or of undetermined intent. For data presentation purposes, a standard framework based on groupings of ICD external cause of injury codes allows for data to be examined separately by intent as well as by mechanism.
The ICD is limited because it is a onedimensional code system (a single code describing intent and cause) and because external cause codes often lack the specificity needed for designing or monitoring injury prevention and control activities. Hence, injury professionals around the world, under the auspices of the World Health Organization, have worked to develop a new multidimensional system for classification, the International Classification of External Causes of Injury (ICECI). The ICECI has the flexibility of coding in settings where minimal data are available as well as in those settings with great detail.
WHO estimated that there were 3.4 million unintentional injury deaths worldwide in 2000, accounting for 6 percent of all deaths and for two-thirds of all injury deaths. Deaths of males comprised 2.3 million, or two-thirds, of the unintentional injury deaths. Table 1 shows the main causes of death from unintentional injury, on a global basis and categorized by gender, in 2000. There is relatively little regional variation in unintentional injury mortality, with crude death rates ranging from lows of 44 to 50 deaths per 100,000 population per year in the Americas, the Western Pacific, and the Eastern Mediterranean to highs of 69 in Africa and Southeast Asia. Within-region variation can be much higher, however, and was most pronounced in Europe where mortality ranged from an average of 34 in countries with very low child and adult mortality to 117 where adult mortality was very high. In every region except for Europe, road traffic accidents accounted for 30 to 40 percent of all unintentional injury mortality. In Europe they accounted for 24 percent, with deaths from poisoning accounting for 21 percent.
Table 2 shows the unintentional injury death rates in the United States and selected other developed countries. To facilitate comparisons the rates here and below are age-standardized to remove the effects of differences in age distribution. In each country with the exception of Denmark, motor-vehicle traffic deaths were the leading cause of unintentional injury.
U.S. Fatal Injuries
In 1999, 97,860 persons resident in the United States died as the result of an unintentional injury. The death rate in 1999, 35.9 deaths per 100,000 population, was 23 percent lower than in 1979 and 54 percent lower than in 1950 (see Figure 1). Unintentional injury ranked as the fifth-leading cause of death for all ages in 1999, accounting for 4 percent of all
deaths. (The four causes ranked above it were diseases of the heart, malignant neoplasms, cerebrovascular diseases, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.) In contrast, homicide (16,889 deaths) and suicide (29,199 deaths) did not rank in the top ten causes of death.
Among all causes of death in the United States, unintentional injury ranked fourth among males and seventh among females, and third to fifth across racial and ethnic groups. By age, unintentional injury was the leading cause of death for persons 1 to 34 years of age, ranked second for those 35 to 44, and ranked third for persons 45 to 54. As seen in Figure 2, the age distribution of unintentional injury includes three relatively distinct peaks–for infants, for older teens and young adults, and among the elderly.
Motor-vehicle traffic injuries continue to be the leading cause of unintentional injury death for persons 1 to 74 years of age. Between 1979 and 1999, declines in death rates from motor-vehicle traffic injuries were responsible in large part for the overall decline in unintentional injury mortality. For infants, suffocation causes more deaths than other kinds of unintentional injury, and for persons 75 years and older, falls rank highest. For persons 25 to 54, poisoning is one of the leading causes of unintentional injury death.
Nonfatal unintentional injuries are more difficult to measure than fatal injuries because, unlike the case of deaths, there is no complete count of them. Usually nonfatal injuries are measured by nationally representative sample surveys, primarily of medical records. Estimates rely on what is written in the patient's medical record, and because health-care providers are often under time pressure, documentation of intent can easily be affected. When intent is not precisely stated, coding often defaults to "unintentional." Thus, estimates of unintentional injury based on surveys are likely to have an upward bias.
In the United States in 1999, there were an estimated 29.3 million visits to emergency departments for unintentional injuries, accounting for about 30 percent of all emergency department visits. In general, visit rates were higher for the younger and older populations than for the middle-aged. Falls were the leading external cause of emergency department visits, followed by motor-vehicle traffic injuries, injuries from being struck by or against an object or person, and injuries from instruments used for cutting or piercing.
Hospital admissions for unintentional injuries are less frequent than emergency department visits. In the United States, during 1998-1999, approximately 6 percent of emergency department visits for an unintentional injury resulted in an admission to the hospital with percentages ranging from about 3 to 4 percent for those younger than 45 years to upwards of 25 percent for those 75 years and older. Falls and motor-vehicle-related injuries are the leading external causes of unintentional injury resulting in hospitalization.
Estimates of the numbers of unintentional injuries and deaths in the United States are produced by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Additional data on nonfatal injuries are produced by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Prevention of unintentional injuries and deaths falls within the activities of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
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Pless, Barry 2001. "Banning Accidents: An Addendum." Injury Prevention 7: 169–170.
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Lois A. Fingerhut
"Accidents." Encyclopedia of Population. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/accidents
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