Accidental Death

Phew! Just back from a successful road trip with my family; successful because the weather was okay, the hotel was fine, the food likewise, the theme park was not so busy, and with careful planning the roads too were not as bad as they might have been. And no one died. That’s great, and I’m happy. I’m not as happy as I could be, however. The smile on my lips and the chuckle in my throat owe more to nervousness than they ever could to mirth. The thing is that even on a journey as short as this one, there were near misses at every turn.

My family is one of those three-generational affairs; some kids to provide the stress and entertainment, some adults to clear up after everyone and do the driving, and some oldies to get confused enough to pay for everything. It’s not perfect, but we get by. I don’t know about you, but in my family we prohibit only two things on road trips in the name of safety. We don’t allow the oldies to look after the kids, and we don’t allow the kids to look after the oldies.

There are two reasons for this (three, if you count my recently acquired, paranoid, over-protective knee-jerk parenting skills) which are well illustrated by these two recent news stories. Firstly, a grandfather was out walking on the river bank with his three grandkids. While trying to show them a tree he used to climb as a boy, he slipped, fell and knocked all three kids into the river. Two of the kids died, but the grandfather managed to save the third. Alas, it is unlikely that he will ever save himself. Secondly, while helping her grandmother bathe, a young girl thought she would move the bath stool to one side (out of the way) while her granny stood up to reset the water temperature. Granny lost her balance as she sat back down, then her consciousness when her head hit the bath edge, and then her life when her liver failed while she was in a coma. The little girl was fine. Verdict: Accidental death; and one really feels for those left behind.

Then there’s the other side of ‘accidental death’. Time-honoured tales of little Jun offering granddad an overly large wad of mochi to chow down on at New Year, while his dad tells the whole family a funny story about what happened at the keiba. Well, the family that jokes together, chokes together, right? And then there’s the story of the obāchan, looking after her granddaughters while mum’s at work in the station mall. She remembers her appointment with the vet (she just dotes on her cats, you know, they’ve been such a comfort since her husband passed away) and decides that the whole lot of them – her, the granddaughters and the cats – will go down to the vet’s together on the bicycle, even though it’s just starting to rain. The granddaughter on the back holds the box with the cats in, the one on the front holds the umbrella, and everything is fine until granny’s phone rings as they are crossing Route 6. Verdict: Accidental death. Oh come on, it seems to me quite clear that a new category is required. How about: Death by stupidity?

These two examples make us laugh at their ridiculousness and yet both have happened, and both will happen again. The loss of life is a tragedy; the manner in which it is lost is a travesty. These incidents are not isolated in their absurdity, but are representative of a growing genre: wilful idiocy. According to a recent study, your chances of dying in an accident in Japan are much higher than they are in most other developed countries, particularly if you are under 6 or over 54. It seems that traffic accidents and accidents involving water account for a large proportion of these. Last year 8492 people died on Japan’s roads and, get this, it is estimated that up to 14000 people died in and around the bathrooms in their homes – from oldies collapsing to unattended youngies falling into tubs that have been left full.

Tetsuro Tanaka, Head of the Department of Health Promotion and Research at the National Institute of Public Health, helps to clarify the obvious when he says that “it seems that, in comparison with other countries, our measures to prevent accidents among infants and the elderly are inadequate”. No, really? Simple measures could probably be taken to reduce the number of deaths in the home, but most people seem oblivious to the dangers around them until it’s too late.

But it’s on the roads that inadequate cautiousness moves towards wilful neglect and we see the inevitable result of too many of the near misses to which I referred earlier. From 80-year-old turtlenecks peering over the steering wheel blobbing along at 50 in the centre lane and barely able to see all the things they’re running into, to kids bouncing around inside the car, not a seat belt or safety seat in sight. Baby seats, booster seats; only seen them in the shops, and in my car. I won’t even set off until everyone is safely strapped in. We used to have a problem with my niece, who didn’t like to wear her seatbelt or sit on her booster seat, but I just showed her mum that bit in Fearless where Jeff Bridges tries to show Rosie Perez why she couldn’t have prevented her child’s death in the crash. She holds a toolbox from the boot of the car, he crashes the car into a wall. The toolbox flies through the windscreen and embeds itself into the wall. I nipped that nonsense in the bud, I can tell you. But I can’t show Fearless to everyone in the country, can I, just the same as I can’t drive everyone’s car, or parent everyone’s children, or watch out for everyone’s snoozing grandparents? I do say something when the opportunity arises, but it’s just a drop in the ocean. It probably does no good, except it makes me feel better.

While we were on the road trip, the near miss that sticks in the mind involved a boy who was about 7 or 8 years old. He was in the car in front of us. Well, I say 'in', he was more sort of 'on'. It was a beautiful clear fresh day, and dad had helpfully opened the car’s sunroof to allow the boy to reap the benefits of all that lovely fresh air. The boy wasn’t so much sticking his head out of the sunroof as he was sticking his legs into the car sitting, as he was, on the car’s roof, keeping in mind that we were doing normal mountain road speeds of up to 20 to 30km/h. At one point, we all stopped at a red signal. When we set off again, dad’s touch on the accelerator was a little heavy, the car lurched forward, the boy fell back and banged his head on the roof of the car. It would have been less funny if his legs had come out of the car, and less funny still if he had fallen from the car altogether and rolled under the wheels of my car to have the life squeezed out of him. The car pulled in a little and the driver got out, I had seen enough. Ma-chan told me not to interfere, which I took as encouragement to do just that. I got out of the car and asked the guy calmly if he had any idea how dangerous that riding position was for the child. He bowed and thanked me profusely for my concern. He then said that he had pulled over to do something about it. I watched him as he went to the boot, took out a hat and gave it to the boy on the roof. Before he got back into the car and drove off, he turned to me and said that he had no idea that it was going to be so sunny today. Good grief.

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