To Die, By Mistake: Accidental Deaths

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To Die, By Mistake: Accidental Deaths

(Unedited Version: Published Article May Differ Slightly)

Lee Garth Vigilant, Ph.D.

Minnesota State University at Moorhead

Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice

Lommen Hall

Moorhead, MN 56563


John B. Williamson, Ph.D.

Boston College

Department of Sociology

McGuinn Hall

Chestnut Hill, MA 02467-3807

To Die, By Mistake: An Introduction

Accidents Will Happen.” –Elvis Costello

On the evening of October 2nd, 1996, an AeroPeru Boeing 757, flight 603, with 61 passengers and 9 crewmembers, took off from Lima, Peru. Flight 603, however, did not make its final destination to Santiago, Chile. In fact, the aircraft and its passengers were doomed from the very moment of take-off. Earlier that day, the maintenance crew had taped over the left-side static ports while washing the fuselage of the plane, and by mistake, did not remove the protective covering after the wash. This seemingly insignificant oversight was actually a dangerous blunder because with its static ports covered, Flight 603 would be flying without essential information like altitude, wind speed, temperature, and the like. From the moment of take-off, its instruments were communicating the wrong airspeed and altitude, and since it was a night-flight, the pilot and copilot were indeed “flying blind”. When the instruments falsely indicated over-speed, the crew slowed the plane to a near stall, and when the altimeter falsely indicated too high an altitude, the flight crew compensated by dropping elevation to a perilously low level. For nearly thirty minutes, as indicated by the cockpit voice recordings of Flight 603 (MacPherson 1998), the pilot and copilot struggled to make sense of the erroneous information that the instruments were communicating. Eventually, Flight 603 crashed into the ocean at more than 300 miles per hour. All nine crew members and 61 passengers lost their lives. At impact, the plane’s altimeter read an altitude of 9,700 feet. (MacPherson 1998).

As it turns out, this air disaster, and the 70 accidental deaths that resulted, was most certainly preventable. The flight crew should have caught the mistake by the maintenance crew during its visual check, the so-called “walk-around” that the pilot and copilot perform as part of their preflight ritual. That we refer to this tragic event as an “accident”, and the resultant deaths as “accidental”, is particularly telling, especially with knowledge of the determining cause.

By definition, accidental deaths are usually unforeseen, violent, and unexpected (Webster 1986). These deaths are unintended, the result of chance, where culpability is not a matter of simple assignment. But what does it mean to label a death “an accident,” really? And, are there situational characteristics that are common to all accidental deaths? The problem of labeling an accidental death “an accident” begins with the very implications that the word accident imbues. If the standard criterion for an accidental death is intentionality, how is it to be determined after the fact? In essence, the ex post facto assumptions surrounding accidental mortality are always the same irrespective of circumstance: (1) that the deceased did not want to die; (2) that the deceased did not intentionally bring death upon himself; and, ultimately, (3) that he may bear little if any responsibility for his own death and the death of others involved in the incident. These assumptions raise important thanatological questions for the very meaning of the word accident, and its application to accidental mortality, questions henceforth addressed.

This essay considers three issues in the discourse on accidental mortality. It begins with an analysis on the various meanings and problematics of the phrase “accidental death”. Then it considers the occurrence and causes of some of the major accidental death categories in the United States. Finally, it concludes with an overview of the problem of labeling accidental deaths, with special consideration given to the notion of subintentional mortality.

What is an Accidental Death?

If we label all of life’s unpleasant events as accidents, then we come to perceive ourselves as the playthings of fate and we cultivate a philosophy of carelessness and irresponsibility.” –John J. Brownfain

When we refer to tragedies like that of Flight 603 as an accident, we mean to infer that it was an unintentional occurrence. Accidental deaths occur by chance, without intention or design, and are unexpected and unusual (DeCicco 1985: 141). Accidents and Accidental deaths are non-deliberate, unplanned, and undesirable occurrences. Yet, there is quite a lot of slippage, both legally and connotatively, when we employ the terms “accident” and “accidental death” to describe all situational outcomes that lack intentionality (Bennett 1987; Suchman 1961). For one, the term accident conjures the idea that the occurrence of death was unavoidable (Kastenbaum 2001) even if, as in the case of Flight 603, it was the result of human incompetence and error. For another, the very idea of an “accidental death” is troubling both legally and philosophically because the former makes us less accountable for the culpability of our actions and choices when serious injuries and death are the end result, and the latter, because it involves a certain level of “bad faith” (Sartre 1956) since by reducing death to fate and chance, individuals can deny any responsibility for the final outcome of their choices and actions (Brownfain 1962). We too often apply the accidental death label to outcomes that were completely preventable, if not expected, and this is certainly the case with autocide and subintentional suicide (Tabachnick 1973).

Recognizing the verbal and conceptual slippage common to the application of the concepts accident and accidental death, the medical sociologist Edward Suchman (1961) sought to tighten their definitions even further. Suchman (1961: 244) believed that the application of the labels accident or accidental death should conform to three necessary conditions: (1) the degree of expectedness (was the accident unanticipated?); (2) the degree of avoidability (could the accident have been prevented?); and finally, (3) the degree of intentionality (was this outcome intended?). However, Suchman (1961) extends these conditions by outlining what he calls the antecedents or symptoms of accidents to further constrict the usage and application of the term accident. In determining whether an outcome might be considered an accident after having met the aforementioned criteria, Suchman (1961: 244) suggests four additional requisites: (1) the degree of warning (less forewarning, the greater the likelihood of an accidental occurrence); (2) the duration of occurrence (the more quickly a phenomenon occurs, the more likely it is to be labeled an accident because it reduces the likelihood and degree of control); (3) the degree of negligence (the more recklessness associated with the event, the less likely it is to be labeled an accident); and lastly, (4) the degree of misjudgment (the more misjudgments, the less likely the outcome is to be labeled an accident).

If we were to apply the aforementioned rules to the tragic example of Flight 603, the question of whether the outcome was an accident would undoubtedly be cause for debate. Certainly, the parameters of expectedness and intentionality are satisfied: no one expected, nor intentionally planned, the tragic outcome that befell Flight 603. However, a close examination of the events of the day and of the cockpit voice recordings suggests some serious shortfalls. With regard to avoidability, this incident was completely preventable. Human error and oversight caused the crash of Flight 603. Yet, despite the inexcusable error of the maintenance crew, and the oversight of the pilots, the flight crew did neglect a crucial warning during the take-off procedure. The first indication that something was wrong with the altimeter came immediately after take-off, when the copilot brought it to the attention of his captain (MacPherson 1998). In terms of degree of warning, had the flight crew simply returned to the airport on first caution, the events might not have unfolded as they did. Moreover, there were misjudgments: the flight crew, upon realizing that something was wrong with the instruments, should have disengaged autopilot for the duration of the flight. Finally, in terms of negligence, or dereliction of duty, if the flight crew had done their “walk around” as prescribed, where the plane is visually inspected, they would have certainly noticed the masking tape over the plane’s left-side static ports.

To refer to the crash of flight 603 as “an accident”, is to ignore so many important details and to suggest that it was the result of fate or chance. As Kastenbaum (2001: 239) so eloquently expressed, “It is a dangerous misrepresentation to classify as accidents fatal events that were shaped by human error, indigence, and greed. “Accident” implies that nothing could have been done to prevent the loss of life –thereby contributing to lack of prevention in the future.” Fate did not cause the crash of Flight 603: human negligence, oversight, and misjudgment did. Yet, we use the concept “accident” ineptly to describe incidents caused by human error even when science itself does not recognize chance or fateful causes to social occurrences and “accidents” (Hacker and Suchman 1963). Perhaps the label “accident” offers a measure of consolation to survivors while simultaneously protecting the injured or deceased from the liabilities that his error has wrought. Perhaps the concept “accidental death” reminds us that we are not always in control of the outcomes or proceedings in our lives, and this, for many, is comforting. Whatever the rationale for applying the concepts “accident” or “accidental death” to social outcomes, this much is certain: the term “accident” is an ex post facto admission of the built-in fallibility of human interactions and human choices. Nevertheless, the label “accident” often obscures the social antecedents that lead to death and serious injury: the human errors that account for 60 to 80 percent of all accidents (Perrow 1984). Thus mindful of this phenomenon, the next section not only reports on the epidemiology of accidental deaths, but also on the causes of, and countermeasures to prevent, “accidental” mortality.

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