A group of teenage students on an overnight backpacking trip sit in a circle around a natural rock "table" in the Mojave desert, eating dinner and reflecting on their day along with their instructors. After dinner, they clean up their dishes, strain the food particles from the dish water, and toss the water underneath the rock which they'd been seated around the past few hours. An abrupt and piercing rattle cuts through the desert air, as an enormous rattlesnake emerges from underneath the rock, covered in dishwater. Students scatter as the pit viper disappears into the Mojave dusk, and everyone realizes they'd been sitting within a few feet of the snake all evening, unbeknownst to anyone...
This snake encounter is a dramatic example of a "near miss," where a slight difference in timing (or location) could have yielded a very different outcome. Outdoor education programs, by their inherent nature, experience many near misses -- more than may be quantifiable -- but what do we do with the near misses we encounter, and how do we convert those near misses into useful lessons?
How do we distinguish a near miss from an incident?
Before we distinguish between near misses and incidents, it's best to back up a step and define what constitutes a reportable near miss, and what is actually just people doing their jobs, or participating in the program as designed. Consider the following cartoon which shows some useful distinctions.
Consider the following scenarios. For all three, assume that the vehicle is properly maintained, the tires inflated, insurance in place, and drivers thoroughly trained to drive the vehicles.
Are these incidents, near misses, or simply risk management systems working as intended?
Scenario One: A van full of students is going down a country road, when a deer steps out into the path of the van. The driver of the van is driving at (or below) the speed limit, sees the deer, and applies the brakes in plenty of time to come to a stop. The students and staff on board are all wearing their seatbelts. The deer safely crosses the road and the van continues on its way without incident.
Scenario Two: The same van of students continues down the road and soon hits a patch of ice going around a corner. The van turns sideways and drifts into the wrong lane for a few tense seconds, before the driver is able to correct and re-establish in the proper lane, just as a truck goes by in the oncoming lane. There is no damage to the vehicle, and no participants are injured in any way -- in fact, most of the students appear to sleep through the entire episode.
Scenario Three: This same unfortunate group in the van carries on its way, and is now within a mile of their intended destination. However, due to a fatigued driver, the vehicle drifts onto the soft shoulder of the dirt road and gets pulled into the ditch at a high rate of speed, coming to an abrupt stop and breaking the front axle. Everyone is wearing seatbelts, and no one is badly injured, though a few students complain of stiffness and headaches after the sudden, jarring stop.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines a near miss as "an incident in which no property was damaged and no personal injury was sustained, but where, given a slight shift in time or position, damage or injury easily could have occurred." Near misses may also be referred to as close calls, near accidents, accident precursors, injury-free events and, in the case of moving objects, near collisions. We like to focus on their potential as "accident precursors," as discussed in this 2012 article.
Are near misses correlated with actual incidents?