Do Vacations Kill?

Two people died this week riding “Shockwave” stand-up roller coasters at King’s Dominion parks–one in Hanover County, Va., and one in Santa Clara, Calif. (To read the Washington Post’s account, click here.) There is the usual back-and-forth about whether the injuries were the fault of the riders or the amusement parks. But Chatterbox is more interested in the broader question: Is leisure time more dangerous than work?

The answer, of course, varies depending on what type of work you happen to do. “In my world, anyway, people, sitting in offices, are obviously not at risk very much,” observes Jeffrey Hadley, a research associate at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. A coal miner, on the other hand, subjects himself to a lot of risk on the job. The type of leisure you tend to prefer is also a factor. “Some people go on vacation and lie on the beach,” notes Hadley, “and some people do things that are more exciting, like skiing and rock climbing.” Presumably the folks who seek physical thrills in their leisure activity tend not to get them on the job, and people who get them on the job don’t seek them out while on vacation. But probably there are a few coal miners out there who go hang gliding in August.

There’s no question that vacations can cause harm. According to The Injury Fact Book, sports and recreation account for “the majority of drownings, many firearm fatalities, about 10 percent of all brain injuries … 7 percent of spinal cord injuries … and 13 percent of facial injuries treated in hospitals.” Overall, “more than 6,000 deaths each year are associated with sports and recreation, not including the many thousands that occur in connection with recreational use of motor vehicles in traffic,” the book says; three-quarters of the sports-and-recreation deaths “result from water recreation.” (The most dangerous water sports, in declining order, are swimming, boating, and scuba diving.) But are vacations more dangerous, in the aggregate, than normal life? Chatterbox, alas, couldn’t pose this question to the book’s principal author, Susan P. Baker of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, because … she’s on vacation!

But her book includes a chart that sheds a little light on the subject by comparing the percentage of “unintentional injury deaths” in various categories (drowning, falling object, etc.) in homes, “public buildings” such as offices, industrial settings, and places where people engage in recreational activities. Thus, 14.6 percent of drownings occur during recreation, compared with 12.8 percent at a home or resident institution and 4.2 percent in a public building ,on a farm, or in an industrialsetting or a mine. (A hauntingly large 68.4 percent of drownings, however, are attributable to other or unspecified causes.)

On the other hand, if you’re going to die by falling, it’s much more likely to happen to you while you’re at home: 51.5 percent of deaths as a result of falling happen in a home or residential institution, compared with only 0.8 percent during recreation, and5.9 percent in a public building,on a farm,or in an industrialsetting or a mine. (Presumably those who die from falls at home are mostly old people; for people under 65, falls are responsible for more recreational deaths than any other recreational activity except swimming.)

Falling objects are most likely to get you at work (33.4 percent in a public building ,on a farm, or in anindustrialsetting or a mine, of which fully 20.1 percent is attributable to anindustrialsetting or a mine). But home is pretty dangerous, too (25.8 percent in a home or resident institution). Vacations are pretty safe in this regard; only 1.1 percent of falling-object-related deaths occur during recreation.

However, lightning is more likely to kill you while you’re engaged in recreation (14.3 percent), with the workplace a close second (14 percent in a public building, on afarm,or in an industrialsetting or a mine; farms are the biggest risk here, responsible for 8.6 percent), and home placing third (12.4 percent at a home or resident institution).

Collision with an object or person (apparently not one that’s falling on you)is the third-biggest vacation killer (after drowning and lightning); 11.2 percent of these deaths occur during recreation, though most such deaths occur at work (27.6 percent in a public building, on afarm, or in an industrialsetting or a mine; industrial settings and mines are the biggest risk here, responsible for 17.9 percent) and at home (23.9 percent in a home or resident institution).

It’s important to remember, of course, that not engaging in certain kinds of leisure activity (read: exercise) will also kill you; heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. So the question, “Are vacations more dangerous than work?” (which, on reflection, should really be “Are vacations more dangerous than work or hanging around the house?”) is a complex one. Chatterbox will continue to collect data on this subject in hopes of reaching a definitive conclusion next week.

[Correction, Aug. 29: Chatterbox misidentified both the amusement park and the ride where the Santa Clara, Calif., death occurred. The park was Great America, and the ride was Drop Zone, which apparently isn’t a roller coaster. (Great America and King’s Dominion share a common parent company, Paramount Parks.) But Chatterbox’s general alarmism about amusement-park dangers was, if anything, understated; according to NBC News, emergency-room visits attributable to amusement-park rides have increased by 24 percent during the last five years.]