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10 Ways to Avoid Death by Freak Accident

A vending machine overturns. A tree suddenly splinters. A generator emits toxic gas. Random accidents like these end 120,000 lives annually. Read on for cautionary tales and expert tips that can keep you from becoming a statistic.

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Zachary Scott for Reader's Digest

Don’t shake snack machines

Freak accidents involving vending machines caused 37 deaths between 1978 and 1995, the machines crushing customers who rocked and toppled the dispensers. Word to the wise: Don’t risk your life for a bag of chips. Here are some everyday emergencies you need to know how to handle.

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lawn mower_freak accidentsbogdanhoda/Shutterstock

Don’t mow hills side to side

Most lawnmower-related deaths don’t involve the whirring blades. Rather, they result from riding mowers toppling over sideways, crushing the driver. To avoid that fate, mow a hill up and down, not side to side.

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ladder_freak accidentsAndrey_Popov/Shutterstock

Climb ladders carefully

More than 700 people die annually in falls from ladders and scaffolding. The biggest mistake? Carrying something while climbing the rungs. In a word: Don’t.

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Use generators safely

After Hurricane Sandy, numerous homeowners who’d lost power left portable generators running overnight near their homes, allowing odorless carbon monoxide to waft inside. The gas induces dizziness, headaches, and nausea, but “when people go to sleep, there’s no chance for them to realize something’s wrong,” says Brett Brenner, president of Electrical Safety Foundation International. Carbon monoxide from consumer products, including portable generators, claims nearly 200 lives a year; of the Sandy-related deaths, 12 were due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Breathe easy by keeping generators more than 20 feet from your house. Here are the rules you should follow to keep your family safe from carbon monoxide poisoning.

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river_freak accidentswallybird/Shutterstock

Cross streams strategically

Water-related deaths outnumber all other fatalities in U.S. national parks—even a shallow stream can pack a surprising amount of force. Once you’ve been knocked off your feet, you can get dragged down by the weight of your gear, hit rocks in the water, or succumb to hypothermia.

When you encounter a stream, first toss a stick into the current; if it moves at a rate faster than a walking pace, don’t cross. If the tide seems safe, enter at a straight, wide section of water, and unhitch your backpack’s waist and sternum fasteners before crossing; a wet pack can pull you under.

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dock_freak accidentschrisdonaldsonmedia/Shutterstock

Stay on the dock

On May 20, 2013, Kyle McGonigle was on a dock on Kentucky’s Rough River Lake. A dog swimming nearby yelped, and McGonigle saw that it was struggling to stay above water. The 36-year-old dived in to save the dog, but both he and the animal drowned, victims of electric-shock drowning (ESD). Cords plugged in to an outlet on the dock and a houseboat had slipped into the water and electrified it.

The number of annual deaths from ESD in the United States is unknown, but anecdotal evidence indicates that ESD is widespread. Look for outlets before diving in, and if you feel a tingle or numbness while swimming in freshwater near a boat marina, get out of the water immediately.

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bear_freak accidentsScott E Read/Shutterstock

If you see a bear, freeze

On July 6, 2011, Brian Matayoshi, 57, and his wife, Marylyn, 58, were hiking in Yellowstone National Park when they came upon a grizzly bear and fled, screaming. Brian was bitten and clawed to death; Marylyn, who had stopped and crouched behind a tree, was approached by the bear but left unharmed. The lesson? If you come face-to-face with a wild animal, resist the urge to run, which can trigger the beast’s predatory instinct.

Even better: Reduce the risk of an attack by giving bears a chance to get out of your way. “Try to stay in the open,” says Larry Aumiller, manager of Alaska’s McNeil River State Game Sanctuary. “If you have to move through thick brush, make noise by clapping and shouting.” And always carry repellent pepper spray when hiking; it can deter a charging bear from up to 30 feet away.

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cut down tree_freak accidentsnapocska/Shutterstock

Don’t cut down leaning trees

Even lumberjacks worry about an effect known as a barber chair. If a leaning tree falls too fast, the trunk won’t make a clean break. Instead, the fibers of the tree will split, and the rear half of the trunk will snap backward. Says Mark Chisholm, chief executive of New Jersey Arborists, of freak accidents like these: “It’s very violent, and it’s very quick.”

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ATV_freak accidentsstockphoto mania/Shutterstock

Don’t drive ATVs on paved roads

On July 14, 2013, Taylor Fails turned left in his 2004 Yamaha Rhino ATV at a paved intersection near his Las Vegas–area home. The high-traction tire treads gripped the road, and the vehicle flipped, ejecting 20-year-old Fails and a 22-year-old passenger. Fails died at the scene; the passenger sustained minor injuries. Surprisingly, one out of three fatal ATV freak accidents takes place on a paved road. That’s because the vehicle’s “soft, knobby tires are designed for traction on uneven ground and will behave unpredictably on pavement,” says Paul Vitrano, executive vice president of the ATV Safety Institute. His advice: “If you must cross a paved road, go straight across in first gear.” Learn the most common cause of car accidents in the United States.

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cliff_freak accidentslzf/Shutterstock

Avoid cliffing out

Hikers scrambling up an incline may find themselves “cliffed out”—stranded on a steep patch, unable to go up or down. “Hikers can get into trouble when they try to take a shortcut or see an area they want to explore,” says Ken Phillips, National Park Service branch chief of Search and Rescue. If you do get trapped, don’t risk the ascent or descent. To avoid this precarious position, scout your route before you set out on your hike, tell someone where you’re going, and carry a radio so you can call for help. While being smart outdoors is always important, you can fall victim to freak accidents right in your own home, too. Learn how to keep your home from becoming a death trap.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest