Posted by: Tobias | October 6, 2008

The Wisdom of Krauts: Vending Machine Accidents

Let’s continue The Wisdom of Krauts, our little guessing game in which I ask you a question with a numerical answer and then aggregate the answers to see whether your average guess is closer to the truth than your individual guesses, with the following question:

Between 1978 and 1995, how many people in the US died as a result of an encounter with a vending machine?


  1. These questions don’t get easier. By the way what happened with the previous question you raised: What is the probability you will suddenly evaporate into thin air while shaving?

    About this one; it has taken me sometime to get used to idea of people getting killed by a vending machine and to build up a picture how they would manage that. I assume people, when not presented with the item paid for get frustrated and start kicking and hitting the machine. In case that doesn’t help they try something more violent and as a result some might end under the machine (in that case the complete vending machine takes rather effectively care of the initial craving for a snack by crushing the stomach).

    The question is how many people manage to get actually killed by the machine; I can’t come up with a number based on a strong line of reasoning. On the one hand given the size of the country, the amount of vending machines, the behaviour of humans when not presented with the product they paid for and the years involved I would expect a very large number of people being killed. On the other hand it must be possible to sue companies when you get hurt / killed by the machine (relatives have to do it in the latter case), resulting in vending machine being secured to the ground and decreasing the number of actually being killed. Therefore, just based on …… nothing really, I guess that around 1 person gets killed per year, so rounded to a nice figure: I guess 20 people have died by a vending machine.

  2. Without having read Mathieu’s answer (which would run against the purpose), the obvious question that needs to be solved first is how at all you could get killed “encountering” a vending machine.

    First, as a matter of definition, I would suppose that the term vending machine describes any machine which you can buy smaller consumption goods from. The main items I could think of are snacks and sweets, beverages (incl. hot ones), minor commodities (e.g. items for personal hygiene like condoms, razors etc.), and tickets (e.g. for public transport). Personally, I have already seen vending machines for flowers as well, which had been set-up in train stations (a very clever concept btw), but these should be only a minor share of overall vending machines.

    The question now is, how you could die from an encounter with a vending machine. The most obvious way would in my eyes be an accident during the production / transportation / set-up / loading of the machine. Here, it wouldn’t be the consumers, but rather the owners of the vending machine (and their employees), who would be concerned. I am not aware of any special reasons why there should be a large number of such accidents, however, given the large number of such vending machines in the U.S., there will surely be some.

    Things get more difficult when looking at lethal encounters between a vending machine and its customers. One obvious issue might be customers dying when trying to break open the machine. I would believe that vandalism is rather frequent, and I can well imagine people dying from this. Most probably, in these cases, people would rather die from the weapon or tool they use to break open the machine, than from the machine itself. These people btw would be worthy candidates of a Darwin Award
    Alternatively, people might die from what they buy from the machine (e.g. by swallowing a minor item), or from not being able to buy what they would have liked (e.g. because they are starving to death because the machine is broken). Finally, there might be people with a vending-machine related phobia, that die as a result of a shock (I know that there exist a lot of very wired phobias).
    While the first scenario might be likely, it would in my eyes not quite qualify as dying from the encounter with the vending machine (after all, in this case it’s not really the vending machine which is the key). The latter two scenarios in contrast just do not seem to be very likely, or at least not likely enough in order to account for a large number of deaths.

    Running the risk of overlooking a crucial aspect, I would thus suggest that the two most typical ways of being killed as a result o the encounter with a vending machine is during the set-up / transport / equipping of these machine, and due to accidents when trying to break open one of these machines. All other sources I could think of seem negligible.
    The period considered covers not quite two decades, from 1978 to 1995 (it will be interesting to see why it is not being referred to more recent data).
    I could imagine that US-wide, about 1 person / year is killed in the transport and setting up of vending machines, even though I have no idea on the exact size of the industry. This would make it a bit less than 20 individuals over the two decades. The numbers of lethal accidents when trying to break open these machines, e.g. by shooting at it with a gun, are difficult to estimate, but might be about the same size, i.e. one person per year.
    My final guestimate for the total number of deaths would thus be 34.

  3. First, let me express my amazement that none of you were surprised that there are people that keep track of such obscure causes of death. An yet, there are, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in this case, which reports that in the period in question “at least 37 deaths and 113 injuries […] have resulted from consumers rocking or tilting the machines in an attempt to obtain free soda or money.”

    This means that Basti was – once again – closer to the correct answer than was the average of your two answers. And, strictly speaking, since these are data for soda machines only he might actually be even closer for all vending machines.

  4. Cool! 🙂

    Yet, you have an error in your last remark. The correct number is 37 for soda machines alone, so that the number for all vending machines will surely be higher. As my guess was 34, it would underestimate the correct figure even more if other machines were included.
    Similarly, I also included an estimate of the deaths resulting from accidents when setting-up these machines. If these were actually to be included in the figure you provide, it would yet be higher, and so would be the difference between my estimate and the correct figure.

    I am proud nonetheless 😉

  5. Obviously I have loads to learn

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