Accident or Suicide? Single-Vehicle Car Accidents and the Intent Hypothesis

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INTRODUCTION

The number of vehicular deaths recorded in the United States total 48,800, 46,620, 43,980, and 41,040 for 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, respectively (Monthly Vital Statistics Reports August 28, 1991; May 28, 1992; June 30, 1993). It is hypothesized by analysts of fatal accidents that many of the deaths attributed to vehicle car accidents, especially single-vehicle car, may result from suicidal intent. However, the information necessary to conclude that the driver's intent was to terminate his/her life is generally unavailable. The questions germane to this project are: (1) What criteria can be used to determine whether suicide was the intent? (2) How can death by automobile crash be determined a suicide?

In an interesting analysis of suicide attempters, Lester and Beck (1980) suggest that the overall effect of suicide intent is highly correlated with choice of method, a finding supported in part by Peck's (1984) analysis of the lethality of suicide method and suicide notes. Although car accidents are not formally recognized as a method of suicide, their lethality is substantial in terms of the degree of risk-taking involved. The crucial factor is the strength of the driver's intent to die.

Single-car accident drivers differ from multiple-car accident drivers in that the former tend to be younger, unmarried, are generally at fault, most have prior convictions for traffic violations, and were driving at excessive speed (Schmidt, Perlin, Towns, Fisher, & Shaffer 1972). But such characteristics should not be used to mask the fact that death by automobile offers a unique opportunity for concealment of suicide intent (MacDonald 1965). For example, the results of a study of fatally injured (N = 182) and nonfatally injured (N = 96) drivers involved in vehicular crashes conducted in Baltimore (Schmidt, Shaffer, Zlotowitz, & Fisher 1977) led the investigators to conclude that 1.7% (n = 3) of all fatal crashes were suicides, 2.7% of fatal single-car crashes were so identified, and 1% of the nonfatal crashes were thought to be suicide attempts. Vehicular fatalities that are suicides vary from 1.6% to 5% (Schmidt et al., 1977). These figures lead to considerable speculation that a significant albeit unknown proportion of vehicular deaths classified as accidents are in fact suicides. As Schmidt et al. (1977, p. 175) argue, the single-car, single-occupant fatal crash is especially suspect.

The work of Selzer and Payne (1962) supports the theory that some automobile accidents are suicides, especially among alcoholic males who are motivated by an unconscious, self-destructive impulse. The further suggestion by Schmidt et al. (1977), that significant personality differences can be identified when accident victims are compared to suicides, has value for understanding the automobile as a method of choice for suicide.

The one-vehicle car crash creates a special problem in the classification of death because the law states that suicidal intent must be proven. Reasons for this legal mandate relate to other legal issues, insurance claims, family concerns, and the stigma attached to suicide. Identification of the criteria to be used for objectively evaluating suicidal behavior versus accidents is important for the understanding of the nature of this problem as well as for other important social reasons (Scheppele 1991). Moreover, the possible misclassification of death has important implications for our knowledge of this problem.

Lethality of Method and the Intent Hypothesis

The determination of suicide requires the establishment of intent. Intent to die thus serves as a starting point, but as Douglas (1967) notes, intention is an ambiguous term. Often investigators are persuaded to accept as fact what is referred to by Douglas (1967, p. 189) as the "social imputation of causality of social action," or something which lies outside the physical environment. According to Douglas (1967, p. …