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…And by Comparison: A summary of the major causes of death with a particular emphasis on young people

Marcus Bailie
Source: Adventure Activities Licensing Authority
Article Date:  February 21, 2003

To my knowledge no single government body collects figures on all causes of sudden or accidental death. As a result we never get to see a clear representation of the Health and Safety of the Nation, let alone the Health and Safety of Young People.

When dealing with statistics of this type it is important to remember that each ‘statistic’ represents a terrible and traumatic personal tragedy. No attempt is made to suggest that any one of these is any more or any less tragic than any other. The only aim which makes sense is to reduce the TOTAL number of such tragedies.

The average number of fatalities in the UK (all ages) include:

Cause Numbers  

All cancers: more than


(Dept of Health)

Heart attacks


(Dept of Health)

Smoking related illnesses


(Home Office)

Obesity and unfitness


(National Audit Office) Obesity in under 15’s has tripled in the last 10 years. This will probably become the biggest single cause of premature death for the current school-leaving generation.

Alcohol related illnesses


(Home Office)

Total accidental deaths





,spread fairly evenly across the age groups from 15 years upwards. Thus there are approximately 1,000 in the age range 15 — 25. (Samaritans)




Accidents in the home


(Of these approximately 200 are under 18 years of age.) (dti)

Road Traffic Accidents (RTA’s)


(The total is down but deaths of young people are up.) (Dept of Transport)

Asbestosis (the result of asbestos stripping)


(We know the cause, we’re just working through the consequences.) (HSE)



(i.e. skin cancer caused by over-exposure to sun)

Class A drugs


(mostly heroine) (Home Office: Reducing Drug Deaths)



(500 of these were previously undiagnosed, and of these the vast majority are children. I.e. 1 child death from epilepsy every day!)



but steadily falling. (RoSPA)

Accidents at work



Allergic reaction to aspirin


(Rescue Emergency Care)

Trespassing on railway lines.

About 120

(HSE Railways Inspectorate)




Train crashes or derailments


(HSE Railways Inspectorate)

Under 5 yr. olds drowning in a domestic bath





(all ages, all situations)

And by comparison…

Cause Numbers  

Adventure activities (all activities, all situations)



School visits


(includes adults and children. Most are road traffic accidents )

And for our 13 million young people

The leading causes amongst children from 28 days to 15 years: Total 3191

Cause Numbers

Injury and Poisoning


Congenital anomalies



at least 430*

Cot death and similar ill-defined conditions


Disease of the nervous system


Infections and parasitic diseases


(all other conditions)

up to 750

Accidental or sudden death amongst young people (up to the age of 19):

All accidents



Road Traffic Accidents








(a quarter of which are from taking class Class A drugs)









(When did YOU last change the batteries in your home smoke detectors?!)






(So twice as many of our young people commit suicide than are murdered; a fact not generally reflected anywhere in the media!)

Medical procedures



All other causes



And by comparison…

Adventure Activities on school visits

  • The biggest cause of death in boys aged 5 — 15 is accidents.
  • The biggest cause of death in girls aged 5 — 15 is cancer.

(Office of National Statistics)

  • In 1921 child mortality (death under 1 year) was 84 per 1,000 live births
  • In 2000 child mortality (death under 1 year) was 6 per 1,000 live births

Set against these figures:

  • The Scouts have 1/2 million members involved in adventure activities.
  • There are probably 3 million school children who are involved in adventure activities, and 7 — 10 million days of school visits.
  • The Duke of Edinburgh Award schemes have an accident rate of 1 serious accident (e.g. broken femur) per 1 1/2 million overnights


There can be no doubt that without this over-view the well intentioned actions by one agency may at times have an adverse affect on areas overseen by another agency. An example of this may well be when Health and Safety at Work requirements have an adverse effect on the fitness and general well being of young people. Conversely, tolerating a low level of risk (in terms of lives lost) may be acceptable provided safety benefits (in terms of lives saved elsewhere) are clearly significant.

1.      I argue that an involvement in adventure activities, especially amongst the young, would save lives in most of the big five killers, namely cancers, heart attacks, smoking, obesity and unfitness, and alcohol. In the case of obesity and unfitness the number of lives saved could be enormous. People are now dying in their mid-twenties as a result of this condition, and our current school leavers are presently the individuals most at risk. A generation sacrificed to fast food and the play station.

2.      It is well recognised that adventure activities improves self-confidence and self-esteem in many people. Conversely, of the 1,000 suicides in people aged 15 — 25 years the main contributory factor (claim the Samaritans) was leaving school with a poor sense of self-worth. I argue that an involvement in adventure activities, particularly in their mid-teens,

3.      Most fatal accidents to children result from them not having learned, or not being allowed to learn, how to look after themselves. Many of the road traffic deaths are a case in point. At outdoor centres and elsewhere it is observable that young people are clumsier and less aware of danger than young people were even 15 years ago. I argue that an involvement in adventure activities throughout childhood and adolescence would significantly increase their ability to look after themselves, particularly in unfamiliar circumstances, and thus reduce the number of fatal accidents amongst children.

4.      It is difficult to quantify the deaths associated with youth crime, for it includes a range of cause such as joy-riding, the taking of class A drugs, violence and an involvement with a violent crime sub-culture. A recognised cause of entry into this sub-culture is a lack of engagement with school. There are currently 10,000 young people permanently excluded from school, representing the extreme limit of non-engagement. I argue there is a commonly recognisable improvement in general engagement following even an occasional involvement with particularly residentially based adventure activities. This, I argue, has a significant positive impact on safety in other quarters, as well as a substantial social benefit for both the individual and society.

5.      I believe many other similar arguments could be made.

I argue that if we want to maximise on the over-all safety of our young people we should do two things:

a)     Ensure that good practice is being followed by the providers of adventure activities.

b)     Encourage young people to participate in activities which statistically cause them very little harm but which are likely to prolong their lives and radically enhance their expected quality of life. To deny them these things would be to deny them the much quoted inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“We have already condemned an entire generation to a life of awful quality and shocking brevity.”

The dilemma

These benefits should therefore be seen in comparison with the small number of fatal accidents in adventure activities, or on school visits. Moreover, I believe it would be irresponsible to take actions which inadvertently resulted in a much larger increase in deaths elsewhere.

If there is a way forward in this awful moral dilemma I believe it must be to explain both the benefits and the risks to participants (and where applicable to their parents) and allow them to choose. Only by factoring the benefits into the decision and making it a balance between benefits, controls, and hazards (the so called Triangle of Risk) is it possible to make this a fully informed decision.

Marcus Bailie
Head of Inspection, Adventure Activities Licensing Authority

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