How selfie-related deaths have given rise to 'killfie' travel insurance

'When you are busy clicking the perfect selfie, a mere split-second distraction can lead to a potentially deadly accident'

One young woman taking a selfie picture with the spectacular mountain scenery in Mountain Zebra national park in South Africa. Beware of lion warning sign beside the woman.
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Dying to get the best holiday pics? Well, hundreds of people literally are. The number of fatalities from selfies is rising internationally, most notably among millennial men, and as the quest for these death-defying ­images becomes evermore extreme, some insurers have started to offer "killfie" life insurance.

Many selfie deaths are the result of tourists taking risks in unfamiliar terrain. It's not only the extreme rooftop chasers, the would-be wild animal tamers and the fantasy stunt heroes. It's the people posing in famous locations such as Arizona's Horseshoe Bend, the ones in the midst of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and the thrill seekers chasing "the volcanic selfie", as seen during the eruption of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii in 2018. The list goes on.

India is the world capital of selfie deaths, accounting for about half of the 259 reported fatalities between 2011 and 2017, according to a study by the US National Library of Medicine. As a result, an insurance company in the country is touting a new product to the avid selfie taker. "When you are busy clicking the perfect selfie, a mere split-second distraction can lead to a potentially deadly accident," HDFC Life tells potential customers. "And before you know it, your selfie has turned into a 'killfie'".

The company says that while life insurance plans cannot protect you from potential dangers, they can offer your family financial security if things don't go as planned. "So although you cannot control everything, you can control a few things in your life," HDFC Life concludes.

While Sanjay Babur of Cosmos Insurance in Dubai says this is simply a "marketing ploy", he agrees that many of today's career risk-takers, the people gracing the world's largest social media travel accounts, "should surely buy some cover, considering the risks they are taking".

Russia is the second-most ­deadly selfie destination, with the US in third. China was lower in the list, but in 2017, renowned "rooftopper" Wu Yongning plunged to his death from the 134-metre tall Huayuan Hua Centre in Changsha during a stunt for which he was allegedly offered about Dh50,000 to perform. Dubai has also attracted daring Instagram users in the past. In 2017, Russian model Viktoria Odintcova risked her life when she leaned back over the edge of Dubai's Cayan Tower with no safety harness and using one hand to hold on to her filming partner. Below her was a ­300-metre drop and the busy waterways of the marina. She survived, but the death-defying stunt led to a citywide crackdown on access to rooftops, after Odintcova's video and images reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

But it is not only social media celebrities who are taking huge risks, dubbed "selficide" by some. Many of the worst incidents have involved normal people being killed by moving trains or mauled by animals, including bears, crocodiles, tigers and even angry camels. In October, four Indians – a newly married woman and three members of her family – drowned while trying to take a selfie standing in water near Pambar dam, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They were among a group of six who held hands and stood waste-deep in the water, before one of them slipped, pulling the others in.

Research compiled in India between 2011 and 2017, and published in a study titled Selfies: a Boon or Bane?, found the average age of people killed while taking a selfie to be only 23, the majority of those (72.5 per cent) being young men in India, Russia, the US and Pakistan. Drowning, transport and falling were the primary causes of death. The research team from universities in India suggested that "no selfie zones" should be created in tourist attractions involving water, mountains and tall buildings, to decrease the number of selfie-­related deaths.

In Sri Lanka, for example, campaigners have called for a ban on people taking selfies from rail tracks and moving trains, after a spate of influencers were caught hanging off trains for the sake of capturing the perfect landscape shot. It is estimated that in 2018, more than 450 people died taking selfies on Sri Lanka's railways.

Ponnurangam Kumaraguru was part of the team behind the original Boon or Bane? research and has since developed an app called Saftie – a data bank of about 7,000 places worldwide where it is hazardous to take a selfie. The app alerts the user to dangers, including locations that are too close to a precipice or water. Saftie is only available for Android so far but is a way to communicate with users who are becoming less risk averse.

While doing research for the app, Kumaraguru and his team asked Indians whether they would intervene if they saw others taking dangerous selfies. “Those from the middle-class said they wouldn’t, while the lower middle-class said they would intervene even if it meant they’d get ignored,” he said.

A selfie death could easily be mistaken for accidental death or even suicide, especially if the person was alone when the tragedy occurred. 

It is a talking point globally. Russell Cain, chief executive of Life Insurance Direct in Australia, questions whether we even know the true extent of the problem. "A selfie death could easily be mistaken for accidental death or even suicide, especially if the person was alone when the tragedy occurred," he says.

Although sceptics may say insurers are cashing in on tragedy to find new clients, Cain says offering cover to people who engage in such activities is worthwhile. "Generally, such actions could be viewed as hazardous activities, similar to extreme sports and past-times," he adds.

Stephane Vigroux, co-founder of Parkour DXB and one of the founders of the Parkour movement in France, says people who take dangerous selfies are not aware of the risks involved and have little fear of death. He says parkour, though considered by many to be dangerous as people move between obstacles unaided, sometimes to the extreme of jumping from building to building, is practised with a value for life. Those who do it train intensively before taking on anything risky, let alone deadly.

"What I see now with this trend of people taking these extreme photos and videos makes me sick to the stomach," Vigroux says. "It's ego driven, like modelling in a dangerous environment. They're always wearing the latest fashions and look impeccable and it attracts views as the setting is always these spectacular environments.

“There’s no respect for life. It’s a tragic waste. You have to be responsible for your actions and you can only do that if you understand what that means physically and mentally.”