John Harrigan: Every accident should become a learning tool
Two tractor accidents in northern New Hampshire and northeastern Vermont took the lives of two well-known North Country people last weekend — names and faces whose memories will bring affectionate smiles to all who knew them.
Yet, while these were major incidents for the tightly-knit northern part of the region, they were of diminishing media interest the further south one looked. And, in theory, of diminishing interest to the rest of the state, as well.
Except, of course, for those who have run tractors all their lives, on farms and in the woods — and for countless thousands of rural and small-town people who use tractors for everything from tilling gardens to getting in the household firewood.
Word of the accidents swept like wildfire around the territory, bringing with it not only profound sorrow for families and friends, but also a near-obsession among people who are on and off tractors all the time with finding out exactly what happened. This can be summed up with the same phrase regarding logging accidents, hiking and climbing accidents and hunting accidents — a desperate need to know.
Hunting accidents, already rare and getting more so with every passing year, are somehow known and being talked about by every hunter in every kitchen and remote camp almost from the moment they occur. There is, at first, incredulity that such a thing has happened, but this is swiftly followed by an almost desperate need to know how.
The very same need for the how and why of it occurs with word of a tragedy on the high-country trails. Within the diehard hiking and climbing fraternity — a loose but somehow still tightly-knit amalgamation not unlike the hunting fraternity — there is a desperate need to know what happened.
At the bottom of this need, in all three scenarios — tractor accidents, hunting accidents, hiking and climbing accidents — is not morbid fascination and not voyeurism, but an urgent desire to see if lessons can be learned — and similar tragedies avoided. Every accident, in this positive way, can be part of the learning curve.
Some elements of public safety officers and emergency responders get this, but some don't. Some information that could help individuals and the public learn from each incident filters out through the ever-finer mesh thrown up by privacy and lawsuit concerns — and some doesn't. Those who might learn from every mishap and mistake are the poorer for the details never known.
Newspapers, at least the ones I've worked at and owned and ran, are in the habit of asking police and firefighters if someone injured in a car accident was wearing a seatbelt or whether people burned out of a home had smoke alarms. To some, this might be construed as an invasion of privacy, but to most it seems accepted as critical knowledge for the greater common good.
For almost a century and a half, the Appalachian Mountain Club has been keeping track of hiking and climbing accidents, doing dogged detective work on the worst incidents and publishing the “how and why” results in its twice-yearly Appalachia magazine. Want to know the whole story behind the headlines and perhaps learn something from it? It may well take a while to surface, but Appalachia will eventually have it. The only other facet of quasi-recreational society I know of that does such a great job of disseminating its accident information so that others can learn is the nation's small-plane pilot associations and federal aviation investigators, who make detailed breakdowns of every single accident available to the public. And this, any pilot will tell you, is one of the most essential learning tools at hand.
Any discourse on the general subject of making accident information public should include a nod of gratitude to New Hampshire Fish and Game, whose field officers and supervisors have a well-earned reputation for running down every detail on accidents, whether they involve firearms or boats or just plain search and rescue incidents in which the department has been involved, and, eventually, making them available to the public. This may happen fairly quickly — witness the many times just this summer have we seen, in a news story, how well or poorly rescued hikers have been prepared — or it might take weeks and months, but eventually, the information surfaces.
Unfortunately, no such system exists for farming and logging accidents, because no one large umbrella organization represents either group or has the wherewithal, desire or mission to act as a clearinghouse for information so many people crave and could learn from.
Every farming and logging accident, every mishap with tractor or chainsaw or skidder, should automatically be followed up with public reports on what happened. But as news organizations grow steadily more removed from rural and small-town life, and as public safety organizations become ever more restricted by concerns over privacy and lawsuits, the learning curve diminishes, to the detriment of us all.
John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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