Accident Proneness: Just Being Clumsy?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Accident Proneness: Just Being Clumsy?

Accident. Noun. An inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws. (Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary, 1906)

My only solution for the problems of habitual accidents…is to stay in bed all day. Even then there is always the chance that you fall out. (Robert Benchley, Chips off the old Benchley)

There are two principal ways of looking at the accident problem:

Theory A: Accidents are caused by unsafe behaviour (and some people are more prone to behaving unsafely than others). Accidents may therefore be prevented by changing the ways in which people behave. This is the concern primarily of personality and social psychology. Theory A focuses on individuals.

Theory B: Accidents are caused by unsafe systems of work. Accidents can therefore be prevented by redesigning the working system. This is the approach taken by cognitive psychologists and ergonomists. Theory B focuses on systems.

The concept of the accident-prone person originated when it was discovered that a small percentage of the population had a high percentage of accidents. The theory of accident proneness is based on identifying individuals who have certain characteristics.

People drive as they live — that is, there are consistencies of behaviour (in response to particular stimuli) which suggest that they may be related to accidents. People who take risks tend to take risks with all aspects of their life: how they drive, the sports they choose, the social rules they break.

Studies from First World War munitions factories also showed that a small number of people had a disproportionately large share of accidents. Researchers asked why. Was this due to physical or psychological characteristics; specific to a job or more general; a permanent or transient effect; due to greater risk exposure; because having one accident may increase the likelihood of another; or was it due to biases in reporting?

What about people’s characteristics? There is little evidence of the relationship between accidents and intelligence. Accident-free steelworkers tended to be more extrovert and outgoing than accident repeaters. Those actively involved in accidents have higher absenteeism rates than those passively involved or not involved. Not surprisingly, accident-prone individuals also take more risks and think the work is less dangerous.

We know that psychological states (not personality traits) do affect accidents. For instance:

• Influenza can result in a 50 per cent impairment in a reaction-time test;

• A typical worker feels ’low and miserable’ for 20 per cent of the time: 50 per cent of accidents occur during these periods of negative mood;

• Drivers and pilots have more accidents when going through major life events (for example, divorce);

• Women are more accident prone before and during menstruation, both for active and passive accident involvement.

As may be expected, older people have fewer accidents. Job-related experience seems to be most relevant to accident rate, although the effects of the number of years spent in an industry and the number of hours worked on a specific task (where the job involves a number of tasks) can also be demonstrated.

Thus, it seems that there is sufficient evidence that personality variables do relate to all sorts of accidents in all sorts of populations. Aggressive, impulsive, neurotic and fatalistic traits seem particularly associated with accidents. They seem to account for about 10 per cent of the variance, which is certainly not to be dismissed. The two independent, unrelated factors that seem to be the best predictors of accidents are extroversion/sensation-seeking/A-type behaviour and neuroticism/anxiety/instability.

The personality traits that relate to accidents and make people accident prone are these:

1 Stimulus seeking: The more people like variety and change, prefer people to things, get bored easily and trade speed for accuracy, the more they are likely to do things (drive fast, ignore warnings, try untried new activities) that lead to accidents.

2 Emotional instability: The more moody, pessimistic and unhappy people are, the more likely they are to become self-absorbed or jittery and ’take their eye off the ball’, which may lead to accidents.

3 If they are young, male and not very well educated, as well as stimulus seeking and emotionally unstable, these people really do seem likely to be accident prone.

Robert and Joyce Hogan developed a personality test to detect the accident prone. It has six scales and it is always the high scorers that do best and have the fewest accidents.

The six scales of safety-related behaviours are:

1 Defiant—Compliant: This component concerns a person’s willingness to follow rules. Low scorers may ignore rules; high scorers follow them effortlessly.

2 Panicky—Strong: This component concerns handling stress. Low scorers are stress prone, may panic under pressure and make mistakes; high scorers typically remain steady.

3 Irritable—Cheerful: This component concerns anger management. Low scorers may lose their temper easily and make mistakes; high scorers control their temper.

4 Distractible—Vigilant: This component concerns focus. Low scorers tend to be easily distracted and may make mistakes; high scorers remain focused.

5 Reckless—Cautious: This component concerns risk-taking. Low scorers tend to take unnecessary risks; high scorers avoid risky actions.

6 Arrogant—Trainable: This component concerns trainability. Low scorers tend to ignore training and feedback; high scorers pay attention to training.


Hogan, J. & Hogan, R. (1999). The Safety Report. Tulsa, OK: Hogan Assessment Systems.