The phone rings: "Hello, dad, can you come pick us up? Mike's car ran off the road."

"Are you OK? Is everyone alright?"

"Yeah. I might have a black eye but everyone's alright."

I figure I'll find a car stuck in a ditch. But as I get close to where they're supposed to be, sirens wail and it looks like a couple of fire engines and police cars are up ahead, strobes flashing in the night.

I pull into a driveway, hop out of the car, and jog down to ask a patrolman directing traffic where the kids are. He points down an embankment. Three or four teens stand shivering in the snow, next to a smashed, totaled sedan flipped on the passenger side. I ask where Kate, my daughter, is. They point to the ambulance.

She's sitting inside, getting her "vitals" measured. "You sure you feel alright?" the EMT asks. Her face is pale. "If you get home and start feeling bad, call 911 or you can go to the hospital," says the EMT, smiling. As Saturday night calls go, this one is a relief. Close, but amazingly, no injuries.

Real potential

Close calls have real potential to align us with safety in our organizations, saysISHN'stechnical editor, David Sarkus, MS, CSP.

I wonder. Will Kate be "aligned" more closely with safety? Or is the jolt of a near-miss (or near-hit) something that fades like a motivational pep talk?

Everyone can tell you about a close call. They happen with frightening frequency. More than 60 years ago, H.W. Heinrich gave the safety world one of its core fundamentals when he estimated that for every one major injury, there are 29 minor injuries and 300 near-miss incidents.

Later, this "law" was tested empirically by Frank E. Bird, Jr., working for the Insurance Company of America. He analyzed 1,753,498 accidents reported by 297 companies. A new ratio resulted: For every 600 near-misses, there are 30 property damage incidents, ten minor injuries, and one major injury.

That's a lot of opportunities to study where improvements in safety are needed, and to make corrections before it's too late. Just one problem: People don't like to talk about near-misses, says our columnist, Dr. E. Scott Geller.

Reporting resistance

Oh, they'll tell friends or family. "Dad, I thought I was going to die," said Kate. "Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. All I heard was breaking glass."

Or they'll tell it to a pollster: More than 40 percent of drivers in a survey by Farmers Insurance Group reported having close calls or near-misses with a driver who was on the phone.

But it's safer to report a near-miss when it's the other guy's fault. "These people think that it is the other cell phone users who are the hazards, not themselves," said the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in an article about cell phones and close calls.

But when it's you who gambled, that can be a hard tale to tell - except when you're still in shock. "I think Mike saved my life," Kate said as we drove home that night. "He told me to put on my seat belt. I wasn't going to because it was a short drive. But he made me."

Still, if I hadn't seen the run-over mailbox, the grazed telephone pole, the uprooted and hammered speed limit pole, and the severed wires that sent a transformer crashing to the ground, I wouldn't have appreciated how close her escape was. The kids told the story one way for the police ("The car pulled out in front of me, sir"), for the parents ("I'm sorry, I'm really sorry") and for each other ("It happened right by the high school. We knocked the lights out while the play was going on!").

No blame, no shame

Dr. Geller explained in anISHNarticle why it's hard to turn near-miss experiences into valuable safety lessons:

- It's inconvenient to fill out forms.

"Why did the police ask so many questions," asked Kate.

- It's less stressful to just forget it ever happened.

"Don't think about," a parent told me after hearing the story. "That's why you wear seat belts. That's about all you can say." She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes.

- Who wants to get in trouble?

"I'm going to get a five-hour lecture tomorrow," said one of the boys in the car. "But you didn't do anything wrong." "That's just the way my parents are."

The best way to encourage reporting is to avoid the shame game. Instead of blame, focus on correcting what caused the near-hit - poor housekeeping, unclear instructions, and so on.

Everyone reacts to a close call with their own philosophy. All we can do is try to nurture the right response. "What did you learn from it?" I asked Kate. "What do you mean?" "What would you do different the next time?" "Oh. I don't know. I mean nobody did anything wrong." "What about wearing seat belts?" "Duh, well of course."

Concessions come hard. We drove back to the crash scene the next day and I deliberately slowed to the speed limit - 35 mph. "Oh, we were definitely going faster than this. A lot faster," Kate said.

- Dave Johnson, Editor