Accidents Waiting to Happen: The folly of blaming individuals for fatalities that could have been prevented.

AuthorBirenbaum, Gabby
PositionThere Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster - Who Profits and Who Pays the Price

There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster--Who Profits and Who Pays the Price

by Jessie Singer

Simon & Schuster, 352 pp.

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.


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