What type of person is accident-prone?

Hard luck or hereditary?


Also in this week's column:

What type of person is accident-prone?

Asked by Charles Haywood of Cedar Rapids, Iowa

"Accident-prone" means one suffers a greater number of accidents than normal. Researchers are trying to discover if there is a certain type of person who is accident-prone.

A few studies reveal a few clues. A French team of public health researchers, led by Dr G C Gauchard of the WHO Collaborative Centre in the Faculty of Medicine at the Henri Poincare University in Nancy, attempted to identify the determinants of accident-proneness. They studied 2,610 French railway workers and reported their findings in the 1 February 2006 issue of Occupational Medicine.

The Gauchard team found that 27 per cent of the individuals they studied had more frequent than usual accidents with injuries. This was much higher than the researchers suspected. The researchers also found that youth, inexperience on the job, dissatisfaction with the job (indicated by applying for a job transfer), having no safety training, having a sleep disorder, smoking, and getting little or no exercise were all related to suffering more accidental injuries. Surprisingly, there was another factor too: Not having a personal hobby (such as gardening).

In 2001, a team of British researchers from the Manchester University Institute of Science and Technology, led by now emeritus Professor Ivan Robertson, identified three key personality traits of people who are not accident-prone:

  1. Openness: This is the tendency to learn from experience and to be open to suggestions from others. But the Robertson team cautions that too much openness can increase accident risk.
  2. Dependability: This is the tendency to be conscientious and socially responsible.
  3. Agreeableness: This is the tendency not to be aggressive or self-centered. The Robertson team argues that people with low levels of agreeableness tend to be highly competitive and less likely to, for example, comply with safety instructions.

Interesting facts

When it comes to accidents, some people seem to be truly star-crossed. Take the sad case of Thomas L Cook as reported by the Denver Post newspaper on 23 September 2006.

Cook got off to a poor start in life, and it never got any better. Cook's accident-proneness started before he was born. He nearly died before birth as his mother nearly miscarried. As a child he suffered many serious accidents. He broke his collarbone, suffered brain hemorrhage due to a playground accident, had his spleen removed due to an injury playing touch football.

He then had a go cart accident while a teen, a near-fatal car accident before attending university, and spent five months in a come due to another car accident while at university. While employed as a computer programmer, Cook broke his back three times and broke ribs in various car accidents and falls. To his credit, he fought back from serious injury to regain his health.

As Claire Martin writes in her Denver Post story: "Thomas L Cook, who died at 54 when he was fatally hit by a car on the 11 September, spent much of his life recovering from the misadventures that plagued him even in the womb."

Sometimes it's just not fair.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au


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