Accidents and injuries at sea to passengers on commercial car riers are extremely unusual; for instance, on British ships in 1986, only 15 accidental deaths occurred. However, the tragic loss of a passenger ferryboat, the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987, highlighted the crucial importance of observing simple safety measures. Make sure you know how all the safety devices work, and where they are located. Where is your life-jacket? Where is your muster station for the life-boats? Where are the emergency exits, and what signals will be used in case of an emergency? Does someone at home know of your travel plans?
The risks of injury are greater from rough seas than from the vessel foundering. Remain seated, make sure you are clear of any loose fittings that may crash around, and if possible lie on your bunk. If you have to move around, be very careful of wet floors and in particular of steep stairways. Do as any professional sailor would do and use both hands.
Finally we cannot leave the subject of sea travel without men tioning the possibility of piracy. In many areas of the world this is still commonplace. In general, pirates are interested in robbery and not in murder. If you are unfortunate enough to be the vic tim of piracy, remain calm, obey instructions, give up your pos sessions as required and do not provoke an argument or a fight.
Rail travel is remarkably safe; in the UK only 8 passenger deaths occurred in 1986, these all being one accident at the Lockington Level Crossing. In 1988, however, 36 people died in a multiple rail crash in South London following a signal failure; many of those killed had survived the initial impact, and were hit by a train on an adjoining track. Most injuries are the result of being
hit by an open carriage door or failing under the train on getting off. So keep well away from your train as it approaches the station and, at the end of your journey, refrain from opening the door and stepping off until the train has stopped.
Risks at your destination
The heavy toll of road accidents has already been mentioned. The risks of driving abroad may be compounded by bad roads with ill-maintained surfaces, and local traffic laws which are not enforced or are even dangerous. (Cities where traffic laws are generally ignored can be recognized by the constant sound of car horns—so familiar to many travellers—the last resort of drivers struggling to make their presence known.)
Unfamiliarity with road signs, local customs and driving habits, and especially driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road, are a hazard to drivers and pedestrians alike—most travellers are potentially at risk and should take particular care.
Greece has a particular problem with moped accidents, which are very common in holidaymakers, and moped accidents are also a serious problem in many other island holiday destinations, such as Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Bali. The problems are made worse by the fact that most people who rent mopeds abroad do not wear crash helmets or protective clothing, and that skilled medical care is often not available to treat the injuries incurred.
One recent survey of motorcycle and moped accidents abroad found that 60 per cent were simply due to loss of control, and 20 per cent involved collision with an animal. Other vehicles were involved in only 20 per cent.
Political and cultural risks
Insurance policies exclude war risks and riots but unfortunately civil disturbances, bombings, or even invasion are liable to occur virtually anywhere nowadays. Politically unstable areas (which vary from time to time) are obviously best avoided, although this may not be possible for the business traveller.
Foreign ministries—the Foreign Office in the UK and the Department of State in the USA—will generally advise intending
visitors to trouble spots on request. If you are unfortunate enough to be caught up in a riot, coup d’etat, or invasion, keep in contact with your own country’s consular or diplomatic represen tatives.
At a more personal level, most difficulties with the local popu lation or authorities can be avoided by finding out how you are expected to behave at your destination. As a general rule avoid political discussions of any type, and avoid making political state ments even in private. Don’t use cameras or binoculars in air craft, airports, government installations, or ports, however great the temptation to photograph an interesting item of local flora. In some societies womep still have a very sheltered status; visitors to such countries are well advised to comply strictly with local customs.
The risk of theft while shopping can be reduced by being discreet with large amounts of cash, and shopping only in areas which are known to be safe for visitors. If a bag, briefcase, or handbag is snatched, particularly by a motorcyclist, let it go. More people are seriously injured by being pulled over in this situation than from any other type of robbery.
Fires Hotel fires are unfortunately all too common and smoke, reduced visibility, and panic are the most serious hazards. Some basic precautions include finding out where the fire escape is as soon as you arrive at a hotel, following it down to see exactly where it emerges, and if possible finding out what the fire alarms actually sound like. Keep a torch or flashlight handy in your hotel room in case of an alarm at night, and in the event of a fire try above all to stay calm. Remember that smoke rises, and that it is safest to crawl on the floor in a smoke-filled room. In the ski resort hotel fire in Bulgaria in 1988, there were no burn or smoke injuries; all the casualties sustained broken limbs, while jumping out of windows to escape from the smoke.
Lifts Hotels lifts are a potential source of danger. If the lift looks unsafe, it probably is; use the stairs instead. Lift cages with only three sides (the fourth side being the wall of the lift shaft) are common in Europe and pose a particular danger. Do not under any circumstances lean against the wall of the lift shaft as it
slides by; sadly, people have lost limbs when their clothes were trapped between the lift cage and the shaft wall.
Balconies Finally, remember that hotel balconies and their balustrades are often designed to look nice rather than to be safe. Make sure the fixing of the balustrade is secure, and that the height of the balustrade is sufficient to stop you over-balancing and falling. Europ Assistance, on average, deals with five deaths from falls from hotel balconies each year.
Camp-sites in all countries pose particular risks: lack of security, leading to robbery and assault; and vulnerability to natural disas ters such as fires, floods, sandstorms, and avalanches. In some countries there is also the risk of being attacked by dangerous animals or bitten all over by insects. Tents should be in groups, with someone always on the watch. If you choose to camp alone in a remote area then you must accept that you are taking a serious risk.
Sports, hobbies, and special pursuits
Most sports and special pursuits involve a risk factor, which is often an important component of the sport’s enjoyment and attraction. When accidents do occur, they can usually be traced to entirely avoidable factors such as poorly maintained equip ment, lack of training or an inadequate level of fitness rather than any intrinsic danger of the sport itself. Most serious skiing accidents, for example, are due either to inadequate mental and physical preparation or to badly adjusted ski bindings.
As a traveller intent on cramming the maximum amount of enjoyment into the time available, you may be tempted to cut comers, but this is unwise. Always make sure that the equipment you use is maintained to the highest standards as the experts doand if the sport you are interested in involves a high level of exertion, avoid ‘overdoing things’ until you have built up an appropriate level of fitness and stamina.
Certain pursuits—for example scuba-diving and hang gliding can be carried out safely only after a fairly long period of graduated instruction and training, including training in the avoidance of the specific risks involved. While abroad you may be offered an opportunity to indulge in such pursuits with only a minimal degree of instruction and supervision: offers of this type are best declined until you have undergone a proper training, and preferably obtained a certificate of competence.
If your pursuit carries you far away from human habitation, make sure that a responsible person knows where you are going and when you expect to return to base. When you are injured on a crevasse on a mountain, or marooned in a boat at sea, nobody can help you unless they know where you are!
In our experience, however, it is not the esoteric pursuits on holiday that carry the biggest risk, but the simple ones. Fathers, unaccustomed to exercise, seem particularly prone to ligament and bone injuries, or even heart attacks from playing cricket or football on the beach. Every year, there is a terrible toll from div ing into shallow water, with serious neck and spinal injury in young men leading to paralysis for life. This accounts for approximately one tenth of all spinal cord injuries. Do not under any circumstances dive into water of uncertain depth, or take run ning dives into the sea from a sloping beach.
Travellers may use alcohol as an adjunct to enjoyment or in con solation for loneliness; it increases all other risks of injury and should be treated with great care. Alcohol and swimming make a particularly bad mix: almost half of all drownings are associated with alcohol consumption (p. 309).
A recent study has shown that in road traffic accidents involv ing pedestrians, the pedestrian is more likely to be intoxicated with alcohol than the driver of the car which hits him. Unfortu nately, travellers are under great pressure to consume alcohol in excess, most of all on the airlines, where it is given out with reck less abandon particularly in the first-class cabin.
Consequences of injury abroad
The consequences of any injury abroad are often more serious than they would be if the same injury were sustained at home. In many areas of the world no organized emergency medical services are available to provide care at the site of an accident, or even an ambulance service to take the casualty to hospital. The more ‘unspoilt’ and picturesque the location, the greater the probability of the local ‘hospital’ being unworthy of such a title.
No medical help may be available at all. Small islands are always a risk. Usually, it requires a population of about a quarter of a million people to support a comprehensive medical service, and an island with a population smaller than this may well not have one (although better facilities may be available within reasonable range). If the island is many miles from the nearest mainland, even the simplest injury can cause problems. Similar risks apply to travellers, visiting small, isolated communities anywhere—desert oases, for example.
Summary of advice for travellers
- All life’s activities involve a balance between risk and bene fit: we take risks in order to obtain benefit. Travellers who wish to avoid injury must examine the risks they run and decide whether they are justified. Everyone should have a strategy for safety, and wherever they are, whatever they are doing, should know very clearly what their escape route will be and how to behave in an emergency. Above all, no one should expose themselves to avoidable risks that they would never take in their normal environment.
If you or any of your companions has suffered injury, and you cannot speak the local language, you may not be able to summon help even when it is available. Find out how the local system works, and what the emergency telephone number is. Remember that however good the local emergency services, you have prob lems if you cannot contact them.