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The Very Intentional Way the U.S. Became a Nation of “Accidents”

Car crashes remain one of the U.S.’s top causes of accidental death, yet simple infrastructural interventions that would reduce those crashes remain rare. Photo: Lee Snider Photo Images/Shutterstock

In 2006, Jessie Singer’s best friend, Eric Ng, was killed by a drunk driver who veered onto the bike path along West Street in lower Manhattan. Ng was biking home to Brooklyn; the driver, who at first denied he had been drinking, was leaving a holiday party. In a deposition that Singer read years later, Ng’s killer recounted the events of the night in horrific detail — how far he saw Ng’s body travel, the sounds he heard Ng make, and what he told the police officer who eventually arrived at the scene about what had happened: “I got into an accident. My car hit this person.”

That statement in the passive voice, which uncoupled Ng’s killer so neatly from the situation — My car hit this person — led Singer first to transportation advocacy, then to a broader interrogation of so-called accidents, and ultimately to writing There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster ― Who Profits and Who Pays the Price, out this week from Simon & Schuster. In 2015, working as a senior editor and strategist at Transportation Alternatives, Singer helped create #CrashNotAccident, a national campaign to rename car accidents, conveying that policy and financial and infrastructural decisions can prevent virtually every “accidental” death. Her Google Alert set up for “accident” provided a window into tragedies both monumental and mundane that befell regular Americans every day, and fed into a newsletter, the title of which provides a provocative question that also frames the central question of her book: “Who gets to make accidents in America?”

Because I write about transportation, I was intimately familiar with one of the country’s top causes of accidental death: car crashes (not accidents). Other countries have dramatically reduced the number of traffic deaths since the 1970s, while the U.S.’s safety gains have stalled and now reversed, making us an outlier among our economic peers. (And now, our traffic deaths are increasing at a new, alarming rate.) Our culture’s exceptionalism has many sources. Building cities and suburbs around cars means that driving becomes nearly mandatory and gasoline is barely taxed here compared to most wealthy nations. Those factors in turn make people accept longer car commutes and more time behind the wheel. Simultaneously, American auto companies continue to make their SUVs and trucks bigger and more dangerous to pedestrians, and buyers eat them up, often erroneously thinking they are safer inside a bigger vehicle. There is little regulation around how big or fast those vehicles can be, even though those are the two main factors that make driving them more likely to kill. As Singer puts it: “You are free to buy the largest SUV you wish, even when the hood blocks your view of the child playing in your driveway.” Everything has aligned to make this situation inevitable, yet should someone drive that SUV and hit a child, it will still somehow be deemed “just an accident.”

But I didn’t know, until reading Singer’s book, about the similarly escalating rate of all accidental fatalities in the U.S. and that the increased chances of dying from one was so uniquely American. The overall rate of accidental death in this country is 55 percent higher than it was in 1992. The U.S. government spends much more money on disease prevention than it does on the prevention of accidental death, even though most diseases — in non-pandemic times, that is — kill far fewer people per year.

Photo: Simon & Schuster

Accidents have become so prevalent in American society because our leaders have persuaded us that they are mostly random, and thus we cannot hold anyone accountable. Singer writes about Crystal Eastman, a 25-year-old New York journalist who traveled to Pittsburgh in 1906 and spent a year tracking the deaths of workers in coal mines. Although there was rarely a major headline-snagging catastrophe, Eastman began to notice one or two deaths happening every day. At first, each just seemed like an aberration. But when Eastman’s reporting, which eventually led to the establishment of workers’ compensation, revealed that these so-called accidental deaths were not only predictable but also preventable, the mining company went to great lengths to pathologize the victims — saying they were drunk or couldn’t speak English or were just accident prone — to obfuscate the dangerous conditions that it refused to take responsibility for.

Corporate interests intervened similarly in the early days of the automobile. At first, mobs in cities would descend upon drivers who struck pedestrians, accusing them of “car murder.” A 100-year industry campaign followed, shifting blame to pedestrians or cyclists or individual driver behavior with that all-too-familiar passive voice — my car hit this person — manufacturing consent for mass death. Today, Singer notes, accidental opioid overdoses can seem indiscriminate — what drug companies want you to think — until you examine research that reveals how they skyrocket in places where factories (and, specifically, auto plants) shut down. “You can call every one of those overdoses an accident. Or you could see the complex ways that risk lines up,” she says. “Not having a job is a risk. It’s a risk of starvation. It’s a risk of freezing, because you’re not paying your heating bill. It’s also a risk of not having access to medical care, and not being able to treat your pain” — which in turn often leads to self-medication, disastrously.

“The point I really want people to understand is that our risk exposure is predicated on who we are, and how society values us,” she adds, pointing to the recent Bronx apartment fire that killed 17 people. “You could say that an accidental fire is caused by a space heater, but who dies in that fire is related to historic redlining policies that undermined Black homeownership that have left Black people in New York City less likely to own their home and more likely to be renters, meaning they have less control over the dangerous conditions that they’re exposed to.”

And this is the real takeaway from Singer’s book: Our accidents, our uniquely American accidents, are really the result of our deeply widening inequality. “Across the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die by accident are poor. America’s safest corners are all wealthy,” she writes. “White people and Black people die by accident at unequal rates, especially in those accidents where access to power can decide the outcome. Whether or not you die by accident is just a measure of your power, or lack of it.” Additionally, she argues, the big transfer of power from government to corporations changes that risk valuation. “Because American taxpayers, rather than corporations, carry most of these costs,” Singer writes, “letting accidents happen is perfectly profitable for corporate America, even when those accidents happen in unsafe American cars or in uninspected American workplaces.” Her thesis, while formed long before COVID-19, has only been magnified by the pandemic — there are some striking passages about disease prevention — and reading this book at this particular moment, as mask mandates are repealed without stronger sick-leave policies in place, provides a revealing explanation for the shifting of risk onto individuals rather than attempting to create policy that protects.

After finishing the book, I’ve found myself wincing when I say “accident,” deciding it’s really only applicable to conversations with my kids. It seemed to me as though the word needs to be nearly purged from our vocabularies, something Singer discusses several times. Singer told me she doesn’t intend to police people’s language; instead she prefers a focus on taking action. The #CrashNotAccident campaign led to a change in the AP Stylebook, which, in a 2016 update, encouraged editors to avoid the word accident because it “can be read as exonerating the person responsible.” Nor does the word “accident” appear in Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s new national road-safety plan. That might be a symbolic change, and one Singer argues already started to take root at U.S. DOT decades ago, but it seems significant, and hopeful.

When I talked to Singer, it was on the day that would have been Ng’s 38th birthday; she wore a T-shirt that said (with deliberate misspellings) BORN TOO WALK FORCED TOO DRIVE and FUCK CAR’S screen-printed in neon red. The man who killed Ng was prosecuted for driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter; if he had been sober, we agreed, he almost certainly would have not been convicted of anything. But a simple infrastructural intervention could have likely kept the driver out of jail and saved Ng’s life, and there is perhaps no better example of how American society decides who gets protected than right there on West Street. “The Bloomberg administration really wanted Goldman Sachs to build its big New York headquarters on this pier land on the far side of the bike path,” says Singer. “Goldman Sachs looked at it and said, ‘This looks like a place that people are going to drive into. Mayor Bloomberg, we will build our headquarters here, but you need to bollard the hell out of this thing.’” And that’s what the city did. “They didn’t protect the bike path,” says Singer. “They did not protect fragile human bodies. But they protected Goldman Sachs.”

The Intentional Way the U.S. Became a Nation of “Accidents”