It was an accident.” That phrase covers everything from pregnancy to an oil spill. It’s the verbal equivalent of a shrug. What could anyone do?
If you’re lucky enough to have never had a serious accident or lost someone who has been in one, the phrase is innocuous. But who does it protect? A car accident means there was user error—a biker got hit, perhaps because she wore dark clothes at night or because the driver was drunk, or both. The nuclear power industry took pains to describe the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster as an accident rather than a cascade of systemic failures that made such an event likely, if not inevitable.
But what if automakers used technology to prevent car owners from driving drunk, or cities installed protected bike lanes, or a nuclear plant was more rigorously inspected?
The journalist Jessie Singer asks those questions. Her conclusion—“There are no accidents”—provides her book’s title. She argues that the instinct to blame human error is not only misguided, but insidious. It covers up the systems that enable accidents. As Singer notes, one in 24 Americans dies “accidentally”—a rate higher than nearly every other peer nation. It’s the third-highest cause of death but among the least studied and most expensive, costing more than $1 trillion in 2019.
In Singer’s telling, mistakes are inevitable. Injury and death should not be. But our workplaces and politics mete out individual punishment for mistakes, rather than preventative measures that make such mistakes less lethal. We’re terrible at holding institutions accountable for their systemic errors even as we hunt for individual culprits.
Singer has a personal connection to the plague of “accidental death,” as she calls it. In 2006, her best friend, Eric, was hit by a drunk driver while riding on a bike path parallel to Manhattan’s West Side Highway. The bikeway contained intersections where cars could cross, with varying levels of protection and signage. An intoxicated driver made a wrong turn, and the three-foot plastic pylon—the only barrier protecting Eric—was no match for 3,500 pounds of automobile. The driver was convicted of DUI and vehicular manslaughter. Nine years later, another drunk driver killed a cyclist on that path. Two years after that, in 2017, a truck driver deliberately plowed into the spot where Eric died. The terrorist, recognizing that the lack of barriers made it easy to mow down innocents just as it made it easy for liquor-soaked drivers to unintentionally kill individual bikers, pled guilty to murdering eight people and injuring 12.
The ingrained response would be to blame drunk drivers, terrorists, or even cyclists for these fatalities. After Eric’s death, Singer was livid that some armchair accident inspectors focused on his not wearing a helmet—an admirable centerpiece of bike safety campaigns. But Singer notes that Eric was hit by a car going 50 miles per hour. Donning a helmet would not have mattered. That other people died on the same path—including in a case where there was homicidal intent—proves the weakness in the design.
Singer explains how “human factors engineering”—which considers the mistakes mere humans are bound to make and attempts to minimize the damage—transformed the path, making it one of the city’s safest places for bikers. Days after the attack, the New York State Department of Transportation installed steel and metal barricades at every intersection where automobile drivers could cross the bike path. This was successful accident prevention that came too late—and it’s not the only instance. The U.S. Air Force successfully implemented human factors engineering following World War II after a series of accidents that were initially blamed on pilot error. Engineers realized that levers with different functions looked similar, increasing the chances of a catastrophic error. When the design was changed, accidents fell. The same is true of commercial aviation, where accident rates have plummeted over the past three decades once airline manufacturers built planes that minimized the impact of pilot error and airlines deemphasized blame, allowing pilots to anonymously report near misses without fear of punishment.
Car accidents, on the other hand, continue to rise, and pedestrian fatalities are at an all-time high. Most are preventable, if we required automakers to design vehicles that have strong pedestrian detection systems, and insisted that transportation departments take measures like lowering speed limits and lane size so that neighborhood roads look less like highways.
But governments have little incentive to protect pedestrians, and plenty to help drivers. The strength of the automobile, construction, oil, and other lobbies is immense.
If you, like me, are inclined to see systemic injustice, you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement with Singer’s scrutiny of systems rather than people. You’ll cheer systemic progress, including the federal government requiring seat belts, air bags, and other auto safety features and, in a different forum, the widespread availability—in some states—of naloxone for opiate overdoses. These safety successes don’t get the publicity of an accident, perhaps because we’ll never know how many lives were saved due to such measures. But once you catch on to Singer’s point, you start seeing evidence of her argument everywhere.
On the other hand, consider the Alec Baldwin shooting on the set of the film Rust, where the actor and producer, using a gun as a prop, discharged it and killed the film’s cinematographer. Rather than focus on any potential error by Baldwin, Singer would have us see the failures that allowed such a mistake to be fatal—how the film’s producers allegedly created a negligent environment to cut costs, reportedly hiring an inexperienced armorer and skipping industry-mandated safety protocols. There had already been two accidental gun discharges on the set, and six crew members had walked off the set due to long hours and allegedly tolerating a potential gun safety violation, according to news reports. Perhaps Baldwin, who maintains that he never pulled the trigger, should have inspected the gun when he was handed it. Regardless, it seems the conditions were ripe for tragedy.
When it comes to “accidents” among Black, Native American, and Latino people, Singer unsurprisingly is wisely hesitant to affix blame to individuals. These minorities are killed by accident at higher rates than white people in all sorts of areas. Because Native Americans have less access to swimming pools with lifeguards and are more likely to swim in rivers and lakes, they are more likely to die by drowning. And because Black Americans are less likely to own their homes and to live in poverty, they are more likely to be exposed to landlords who cut corners on fire safety.
Because of a confluence of factors, Black Americans are also more likely to die being struck by automobiles. Singer describes a Black mother, Raquel Nelson, who walks her children across a four-lane highway to the bus stop. She lives in an Atlanta suburb where trekking to a crosswalk adds 20 minutes to their journey. In 2010, a driver, who was partially blind, as well as drunk and taking pain medication, hit and killed Nelson’s son as they were crossing the highway. The driver served six months in prison. But Nelson also was charged with reckless conduct and vehicular homicide because she did not use a crosswalk, and was convicted of the latter by an all-white jury. Even after the senseless death, the Georgia Department of Transportation declined to add a crosswalk; typically, traffic engineers will only add one if 100 people risk their lives running across a street every hour for at least four hours a day.
Nelson’s case was no accident, but, rather, a function of the crime of being poor, and of the prioritization of cars over pedestrians.
Villainizing Nelson for jaywalking absolves the government of creating a cars-first environment, pushing her and her late son to that dangerous highway crossing. Similarly, placing sole blame on her son’s killer, a drunk driver with two hit-and-runs on his record, absolves policy makers of creating a transit-weak environment in which driving is seen as necessary even for someone with a medical condition and poor driving history.
Of course, drunk driving is plainly wrong. But placing all of the blame on the inebriated driver is a simpler task than creating environments that make these mistakes less deadly.
Had Singer expanded her analysis of suburban traffic accidents, she would have seen that in-car traffic fatalities are actually higher for whites, due to sprawl, car-centric transportation design, and high speeds.
Fixing broken systems means compromising, and ours is an age when infringement on individual rights is immediately denounced by conservatives for being anti-liberty and by NIMBY liberals for being inconvenient. We all go through metal detectors at airports in the interest of national security, but God forbid we regulate SUVs that are so big that children at play cannot be seen by the vehicle’s backup camera, or we require guns to have fingerprint IDs so they’re not used by children or criminals who wrest them from their owners. That would infringe on “liberty.”
Nowhere is this truer than with the pandemic. Singer doesn’t extend her argument to COVID-19, which is not classified as an accident by her or anyone else. But there are parallels. One’s likelihood of catching the disease can be mapped onto work in unsafe environments as well as race and class. It flips the partisan script, and it is tempting for liberals to blame individuals who are unvaccinated.
But systems thinking would have us improve our environments rather than count on perfect people. In the context of COVID vaccination efforts, health officials did exactly that. They partnered with pharmacies, made the vaccine available beyond working hours, and encouraged workplaces to offer time off to get the vaccine and handle side effects. On-the-ground investment and broader availability allowed the number of inoculations to soar in Black and Hispanic communities, where lack of access was limiting vaccine uptake. As for those who refuse to take the vaccines on ideological principles, we can implement accountability—vaccine mandates, with loss of a job as one consequence, for refusing to make their environment safer. So far, the threat of unemployment is working.
Singer provides an in-depth history of how taxpayers—not companies— often pay the price for bad systems. When workers’ compensation laws and unions made employers accountable for accidents and thus willing to spend money to prevent them, companies found a way around these regulations by making complex work rules and creating conditions in which it’s unacceptable to report a risk or take the necessary time to follow said rules. When accidents inevitably happen, it’s the worker’s fault. It’s a playbook that critics charge Koch Industries has used when acquiring paper mills—cut costs with layoffs, ask the remaining workers to do more tasks at a quicker speed, and then blame them for not following rules they don’t have time to absorb.
“If the only job of executives is to maximize profits, then without a countervailing force to keep workers safe, accidents happen,” Singer writes.
Since the 1980s, corporations have focused on regulatory capture and tort reform—weakening the government’s ability to impose safety restrictions on companies and keeping individuals from collecting meaningful damages when accidents occur. Following other countries’ examples could help, Singer notes. Regulating vehicle size and weight could make a huge difference. Automobiles are not even rated for pedestrian safety in the U.S., Singer writes, because General Motors objected to it. Across Europe and Japan, meanwhile, pedestrian fatalities have fallen significantly because their automakers must incorporate pedestrian safety into vehicle design—for instance, changing the slope of a car’s hood to reduce impact.
Singer says she was propelled to write There Are No Accidents out of “love and rage” over Eric’s death. Her rage is not directed at the cyclist’s killer. She surmises that Eric would not have wanted the drunk driver to go to prison, and the driver’s conviction brought her no solace.
There are two truths that coexist throughout Singer’s richly reported book: Eric will never come back, and humans will drink and drive, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. Hating Eric’s killer—though his behavior was criminal—can’t change that. But accountability and engineering can ensure that others don’t have to feel the rage that propelled Singer’s thoughtful, compelling book. They can just focus on the love.