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Stop calling them “accidents”

From car crashes to environmental spills to workplace injuries, author Jessie Singer encourages us to reconsider the word “accident.”

A mangled stop sign on the ground. Steve Cicero/Getty Images

From the desk of my home office in Washington, DC, I can see a four-way intersection with stop signs on each corner. About a year ago, I started to notice something alarming: The cars seemed to be going much faster, and they were running stop signs much more frequently than usual.

More than 31,000 people died in car crashes on America’s roads in the first nine months of 2021, a 12 percent increase over the previous year, and the highest percentage increase during the first nine months of a year since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started tracking the numbers. The problem only seems to be getting worse.

When you look at the number of people being killed on our streets, the word “accident” starts to feel really unsatisfying. It almost seems to say “there’s nothing to see here,” when, clearly, something larger is going on. In America, we hear and read about “accidents” every day. Most of us shrug our shoulders: After all, if it’s an accident, there’s nothing much that could have been done to prevent it, right?

In the new book There Are No Accidents, author Jessie Singer argues that basically everything we consider to be an “accident” — be it car accidents or fatal fires or workplace injuries — are in fact not accidents at all. Humans, Singer writes, make mistakes all the time, but it’s the dangerous conditions in our built environments that result in fatal consequences. Larger systemic forces, shaped by corporations and governments, intersect to create vulnerabilities that we don’t all share equally. Anticipating and reducing those opportunities for human error is the key to preventing needless death.

“As a disclaimer, I don’t like to use the word ‘accident,’” Singer told me in the interview. “I don’t normally use the word ‘accident’ but I’m going to use it throughout our conversation, so that you can see when it starts to sound weird to you.”

I spoke with Singer about their book, their critique of how we use the term, and how we can make our communities safer for an episode of Vox Conversations. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you mean when you say there are no accidents?

This is a real tricky thing for us to wrap our heads around because the word “accident” is quite tricky. By definition, it’s a contradiction. It has two definitions: One is a random event, and the other is a harmful event. So an accident is unpredictable, but with a predictable outcome.

From that direct contradiction, we get a lot wrong about what an accident is. What’s important when we talk about accidents, and perhaps the number one thing that we get wrong about accidents, is that we focus on the last person involved when things go wrong. In that viewpoint, accidents seem random, and we miss the layered causality that leads to accidental harm. We miss the stacked, dangerous conditions that lead to people being killed and injured in accidents.

What’s the problem with the term “accident?”

There are a lot of problems with it. Accidents are supposed to be random, right? And unpredictable. If that were true, then accidental death would be randomly distributed across the country, but it’s not. When we look at the data, we see that Black and Indigenous people and people living in poverty die by accident most often.

So we’re told at once that this is random, and then we’re told by example that this is totally not random. When we look at the racial and economic differences in accidental death, we see that this is especially true for accidents where policy and infrastructure make a difference between life and death. The safety of our homes, our roads, of our workplaces — what we see is that policy decisions and an unregulated corporate environment lead to risk unequally distributed across the US. But we’re told to think of it as a matter of personal responsibility.

When we say “it was an accident,” we’re saying it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t their fault. In doing that, we’re almost always focusing on the wrong thing and setting up the same accident to happen again.

Why are Black and Indigenous people more likely to die “by accident” than white Americans, and what are some of those things that we think of as accidental?

When we talk about accidental death, what we’re talking about is unintended, injury-related death, not violence and not disease. There is a huge swath of ways that people die, from choking, to falls, to drowning, to traffic crashes, to fires, to poisoning, to drug overdoses. It is a massive category that includes much more obscure and unlikely ways to die, like freezing to death or starving to death, which of course still do happen.

These are all considered accidents. But there are racialized and economic differences in some accidental deaths — they’re not universal. Indigenous people are more than twice as likely as white people to be killed by a car crossing the street, and Black people are more than twice as likely to die in an accidental house fire than white people. There’s quite a bit of conditional exposure in whether or not a house fire is deadly, whether or not a traffic crash is deadly. It has to do with different layers of exposure, and that layered causality is really important.

If you’re driving an old car, you’re more likely to die in a traffic crash. If someone is driving a much bigger car than you or if you live in a low-income neighborhood where they’re not repairing the roads, you’re also more likely to die. And if you’re in a scenario where all three of those factors are interacting and maybe there are other factors too, like your local hospital recently closed, which means you’re farther away from emergency medical services — all of these layers contribute to whether or not we survive our mistakes. Certain people have less opportunities to survive their mistakes.

When someone is killed in an “accident,” let’s say a car crash, for example, people almost always ask questions like, “Was he in the crosswalk? Was she wearing a helmet? What color clothes were they wearing?” Why is it that we feel compelled to do that?

Questions of blame are really important to us when things get scary. This is especially true with accidents because they seem random, because we’re focused on that last person who made a mistake. It seems like there could have been no other conditions under which that mistake was made.

Seemingly random horrors and tragedies are terrifying. As a result, victim blaming, or even perpetrator blaming, is a comfort because it’s a way of feeling in control of an uncontrollable situation. This is an incredibly strong urge because there are few things more disquieting to us than not having control. In that disquiet, we search for the simplest and quickest and nearest cause, and the simplest and quickest and nearest cause is always the last person who made the mistake. It’s important to point out that victim blaming and perpetrator blaming aren’t that different. Obviously one is especially cruel, but both are useless because they don’t lead us to preventing the problem.

Victims are especially blamed. That’s because they’re dead or they’re hurt, it’s because they can’t speak up. The urge to blame victims is a way to say, “Not me, couldn’t happen to me. I wouldn’t have made those decisions.” It gives us quite a bit of space from this thing that terrifies us.

I know the whole point of your book is that we focus too much on individual responsibility and not on these larger systemic changes that need to be made. But for those of us who don’t want to feel completely helpless, what can we do as individuals to change things?

There are so many ways that we can throw a pillow between us and our mistakes. In terms of the big picture of the federal government, we should be pushing for the re-funding and the reviving of our regulatory agencies, to rein in corporate power and to put a cost on accidental death. Every time someone dies on a corporation’s watch, whether in an unsafe car, on the roads, or in an unsafe workplace, there should be a major cost that makes it no longer feasible for them to continue.

We should also be advocating on the federal level to rebuild the social safety net so people don’t have to make bad decisions. Pay people money to protect themselves, to drive a safer car, to not take the most dangerous job or live in the least-safe place. There’s also so much you can do locally. There are a million ways to prevent accidental death. In your neighborhood, you can advocate for traffic calming and public transit expansions, because if you don’t have to drive a car, you are much safer. If you’re able to take a bus or a train, that makes you more likely to survive your trip from point A to point B.

You can advocate for safe injection sites, and the free distribution of Naloxone and syringes. Simply making them accessible without stigma will not only prevent accidental overdose, but will prevent the accidental transmission of diseases. You can fight for in-your-home and in-your-office ADA accessibility, like ramps and grab bars, so an accidental fall is less likely to end in death.

This even extends to much less-common causes of accidental death, like fighting for fire safety requirements like sprinklers and self-closing doors in apartment buildings in the city you live in. It means that when someone makes the mistake of lighting something on fire, it’s less likely to kill people. As long as we can stop focusing on the last person who made a mistake, as long as we can accept that mistakes are inevitable but premature death is not, we can do so much to protect each other.

Listen to the full Vox Conversations episode wherever you find podcasts.