Accidents or safety violations?

I first penned this column for B.A.S.S. Times in September 1991. Now, 20-plus years later, I had hoped that it would not be necessary to re-publish.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I have done a little editing to update the message, but the message is still the same: Most of the things we label as accidents are simply violations of accepted safety practices — or in other words, things we did that we should have known better than to do!

When delivered in person, I usually begin this dissertation by asking the audience to define “accident.” Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance” and “an unexpected happening causing loss or injury which is not due to any fault or misconduct.” My simplified definition is that an accident is an act of God; everything else we commonly call an accident is, in reality, a violation of accepted safety practices or just a lack of good old common sense. Let’s look at some common “accidents” and judge them against these definitions.

  • A driver who has had little sleep is towing a boat late at night, in horrible weather. Somewhere between the lake and home he runs off the road and overturns his vehicle. One person is killed and another seriously injured.
  • A boat operator is running at full throttle without a PFD or an engine “kill” switch attached. While making a sharp turn, he and his partner are thrown out of the boat. The engine still running, the boat turns, hits and kills the driver.
  • A tournament boat encounters a strong thunderstorm. Rather than seeking shelter, the contenders decide to continue fishing through the storm. Lightning strikes one of the anglers, causing serious injury.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Unfortunately, all three of the above “accidents” have happened to B.A.S.S. Nation members over the years, but do the circumstances warrant the term “accident”? To determine if they were accidents or safety violations, we must ask ourselves a series of questions. To classify these events as accidents, the answers to all of the following questions must be an unequivocal “yes.”

Was it an unforeseen or unplanned event? Certainly unplanned, but was it unforeseen? That’s questionable, but for the sake of discussion we’ll give it a “yes.”

Was it an unexpected happening causing loss or injury? We’ll give this a “yes” as well, although that, too, is questionable.

Was it an unexpected happening causing loss or injury that was not due to any fault or misconduct? Certainly not!

In my humble opinion, the test for “fault or misconduct” is the true test of an accident and the one that most incidents fail. This philosophy is what guides my “act of God” definition. If you accept my analysis of these sample incidents, then you must also agree that none of them meet Webster’s or my simplified definition of an accident.

Why is this English lesson important? When we use the term “accident,” we tend to alleviate blame and dismiss the incident as unavoidable or “just one of those things.” If we recognize safety violations for exactly what they are and examine them to determine cause, we could make great strides to reduce needless loss.

Over the past 20-plus years under the B.A.S.S. Nation insurance program, we’ve had many serious losses and fatalities. When I analyze each of those losses, I rarely find that they can pass this stringent test of an “accident.” Almost all of them were preventable safety violations or lapses in judgment. I don’t mean to hurt or offend anyone by this statement, but if saying it saves one life, it was well worth saying.

So come on, Nation leadership and members, let’s lead the charge. Let’s all show our genuine concern for safety by practicing those things that we know are right and by correcting others who take safety lightly. Let’s stress safety in our tournament briefings and club meetings. Let’s put safety first!

Will this emphasis make some members angry or upset? Sure it will, but those are probably the ones who need reminding the most.

Originally printed in the August 2012 issue of B.A.S.S. Times.