National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Accidental Deaths

Accidental Deaths


Main points

  • In 2017, there were 2,348 deaths registered as accidental in Scotland, accounting for four per cent of the total deaths for that year. This is an increase of 132 accidental deaths (6%) compared with 2016. These figures are based on the new coding rules that apply in Scotland with effect from 2011 (see below for further details).  It is estimated that only 1,579 of these deaths would have been counted as accidental under the old coding rules (26, 2% more than the corresponding estimate for 2016.
  • Between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, the number of accidental deaths in Scotland almost halved.  Numbers were relatively stable for the next 15 years but since 2012 accidental deaths have increased every year. These figures are based on the older coding rules to maintain a continuous time series, but the figures based on the new coding rules also show an increase since 2012.
  • The most common cause of accidental death in Scotland in 2017 was falls (982 deaths, 42% of all accidental deaths) , closely followed by accidental poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances (923 deaths, 39% of all accidental deaths). Transport accidents caused  174 deaths (7 per cent). 
  • Deaths from transport accidents have fallen in recent years, whilst deaths from falls and accidental poisoning have increased. 
  • The 85+ group had the largest total number of accidental deaths in 2017 with a quarter of all deaths.  This was followed by the 80-84, 35-39, 40-44 and 45-49 age groups, each of which accounted for between 8 and 9 per cent of deaths.   This reflects the fact that falls occur mostly in the elderly and accidental poisonings in the middle age groups. 
  • In 2017, there were 1,362 male deaths due to accidents (58% of all accidental deaths), compared with 986 for females.

 Notes on methodology changes

 How accidental deaths are identified is explained in the definition of the statistics section on this website.

 There have been two changes in recent years which have affected these figures:

  1. In 2009, how National Records of Scotland (NRS) obtains information about the nature of death changed.  Since then, there has been a large increase in the percentage of poisoning deaths described as accidental, and a fall in those described as being due to events of undetermined intent.  This has had a slight (in percentage terms) effect on recent years’ numbers of accidental deaths. Procurators Fiscal (PFs) have a responsibility to investigate all sudden, suspicious, accidental and unexplained deaths.  How NRS classifies the nature of a traumatic or suspicious death registered in Scotland is usually informed by the view of the PF who, at the conclusion of the investigation, will notify NRS as to whether such a reported death was due to an accident, assault, intentional self-harm or undetermined intent.  The last category should be specified in cases “where the evidence is insufficient for the PF to form a view, on the balance of probabilities, as to which of the other categories is appropriate”.  The current procedure is described briefly at  'Mid-2009 Change in the Procedure Used to Inform NRS About Suicides' .  It was introduced in 2009. Over the next five or six years, there was a large increase in the percentage of poisoning deaths which PFs described as being the result of accidents, and a corresponding fall in the proportion which they described as being due to events of undetermined intent.  This affected slightly (in percentage terms) the numbers of deaths, registered from 2010, which have been counted as accidental.  A separate note on 'How the statistics may have been affected by changes in the views of Procurators Fiscal on the nature of deaths'  provides more information about this. 
  2. As indicated earlier, the totals for 2010 and 2011 are not comparable because of new rules for coding the causes of death.  How ‘drug abuse’ deaths from ‘acute intoxication’ are coded has changed: in 2010 and earlier years, they were counted under ‘mental and behavioural disorders due to psychoactive substance use’; now they are classified as ‘poisoning’, so some of them will be counted as accidental deaths. NRS has estimated what the figures for 2011 onwards would have been, had the data been coded using the old rules, to show the trends without the break in series caused by the new coding rules.Of the deaths that were registered in 2011, it appears that 362 more were counted as being due to ‘accidental poisoning’ under the new coding rules than would have been counted under the old coding rules; the corresponding figures for 2012 to 2017 are 382, 384, 430, 490, 663 and 769 respectively. NRS hopes to continue to estimate the number of accidental deaths on the basis of the old coding rules for at least a few more years.

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