Lies, damned lies, and statistics

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. So said former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, at a time when healthy scepticism in the rhetorical use of numbers was all the rage – as well as stovepipe top hats and brightly striped pantaloons.

But much has changed since the late 19th-century – and not just the fashion.

Nowadays, the robust analysis of data is essential if your argument is to get a toe-hold in the collective consciousness (competing as it must with the X-Factor, Pippa Middleton, and the off-field antics of celebrity footballers).

But seriously, in an age of scarce resources every organisation worth their salt must now be providing a sophisticated response to the riddle, “where do we target resources?”

Here, at RoSPA, the answer to that question is staring us full in the face.

Accidents are responsible for 14,000 deaths and millions of injuries across the UK each year, costing the country an estimated £150billion. Yet, prevention is fairly easy to implement and inexpensive to deliver.

That’s why it is one of our key campaigns to make accident prevention a public health priority.

In a nutshell, here’s what we know about this “hidden epidemic”:

  • Accidents are the principal cause of death up to the age of 39 in the UK
  • Accidental injury continues to be the main cause of death for children after infancy
  • In 2009, one death in 40 in England and Wales was caused by an accident. Roughly three times as many people suffer a serious, life-changing injury as are killed
  • Among the causes of accidental death that have been increasing in recent years are falls, and accidental choking, strangulation and suffocation, particularly among older people
  • Accidents are financially costly to Government and society
  • Accident prevention is, compared to other potential public health interventions, easy to implement and inexpensive to deliver
  • The return on accident prevention investment, measured in Quality Adjusted Life Years, outstrips every other potential public health intervention.
  • Accidents diminish the lives of nearly a third of people in England

Following a lot of hard work in recent decades, big strides have been made in bringing down the number of people accidentally killed or injured on the road and at work. Yet, despite these significant gains, mortality statistics show that the overall trend for accidental death in the UK has been generally upwards in the last few years.

Accidents do not just cause immediate pain and suffering to the victim. Grief can last a lifetime and divorce and family breakdown are recognised as potential consequences of serious accidents. Families can suffer extreme financial hardship and the stress and strain of caring for an injured loved one should not be underestimated.

Despite RoSPA’s consistent lobbying – along with the work of many other organisations – accident prevention has remained a worryingly low priority for successive governments and has still not received the level of attention it deserves.

Several times in the last two decades, accidents have been listed as a priority by the Department of Health. But when there is a change of minister, the impetus often slows and suddenly the topic is dropped. Without government leadership and vocal support, others will not keep up the momentum.

In November 2010, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced the Coalition Government’s plans for public health in England, including the establishment of a new integrated service, called Public Health England.

RoSPA welcomed the opportunity to respond to the White Paper, Healthy Lives, Healthy People: our strategy for public health in England, and two associated consultations. However, the White Paper’s lack of recognition of the accidental injury problem, including its distribution, severities, costs or preventability, was of great concern. The focus instead was on other issues, such as alcohol-related ill health, diet, exercise and mental health.

In responding to the consultation, RoSPA put together the most comprehensive policy paper about accident prevention as a public health issue in its 94-year history. You can read RoSPA’s full consultation response (PDF 343kb) here.

RoSPA urges the Government and other leaders in the public health field to reflect on the many arguments which, taken together, constitute an unassailable case for developing fresh action on accident and injury prevention. Only by making such action a permanently-embedded feature of public health policy and practice in the UK will we be able to get on with our mission: which is to save lives and reduce injuries.

If you are as concerned as we are by this lack of action, please visit our public health campaign webpage and click on the big red “Support Our Campaign” button.

Your support – and the support of your friends and colleagues – would be much appreciated.

Michael Corley

RoSPA’s Campaigns Manager

One Comment to “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”

  1. As you state “Accidents are responsible for 14,000 deaths and millions of injuries across the UK each year, costing the country an estimated £150billion. Yet, prevention is fairly easy to implement and inexpensive to deliver”. We need to move the debate away from H&S being seen as a burden on business. Unfortunately its firmly in the “burden” category in the public eye’ in the media and in the political arena
    The IOSH Li£e Savings Campaign is a big step and ROSPA’s White paper helps.
    The business arguments are the way forward and we need to get better at promoting this at all levels as H&S professionals.
    H&S professionals need to support this campaign
    Peter Roddis MBA CMIOSH
    activesafety.org

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