No, I’m not talking about the latest local political melodrama; I’m talking about stairs. I’m reading “At Home: A short history of private life” by humorist Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods, The History of Nearly Everything) in which Bryson deconstructs the modern residence and explains the history of just about every part of it. The chapter on stairs was especially interesting. For instance, falls on stairs are the second most common cause of accidental death in America, coming after car accidents but before death by drowning or by fire or by any other accidental cause. Bryson contrasts the amount of money spent on fire prevention while almost none is spent on understanding and preventing falls on stairs.
While the majority of people who die in falls on stairs are above the age of sixty-five, the largest number of serious injuries from stair falls occur in houses with small children, both because the stairs are used more often and because kids leave a lot of things lying on stairs. Unmarried people are more likely to fall than are those who are married, and people who are fit are more likely to fall than those who aren’t in very good shape (perhaps because the fit people take the stairs faster and aren’t as careful). In other countries, the majority of stair falls occur at work or while shopping but in America the overwhelming majority of falls occur within the house. That’s not because Americans are more careful outside the home; it’s because we rarely use stairs in places where elevators or escalators are available.
After mentioning that a fall while going downstairs is much more dangerous than one that occurs while going up, Bryson shares these final observations:
The two times to take particular care on staircases are at the beginning and at the end. As many as one-third of all stair accidents occur on the first or last step, and two-thirds occur on the first or last three steps. The most dangerous circumstance of all is having a single step in an unexpected place. Nearly as dangerous are stairs with four or fewer risers. They seem to inspire overconfidence.
It’s funny, if we see a spider or a mouse, our heart rates quicken and we have an irresistible urge to flee, but it’s unlikely that either of those creatures could do us any harm. But when we are confronted with stairs, our minds shift to anything but the task at hand and we mindlessly go up or down as the case may be. Maybe if we all pay a little more attention to what we are doing on stairs, we won’t go down any faster than intended.