A Conversation with Jessie Singer – Mother Jones

The consequences of accidents and intentional violence often look the same. Here, a cyclist pays tribute to those killed in the October 31, 2017, terrorist vehicle attack on the Manhattan bike path.Andres Kudacki/AP

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Last year, while cycling in denver i maneuvered over what i thought was part of the road, hit a curb and fell. I wasn’t going very fast, but the right side of my body still smashed into the concrete. When I got up, a woman who lived nearby came. She told me she saw people trip over that curb all the time.

So was this an “accident” or a predictable result of a design flaw? Think about the last time you were injured accidentally. How could this have been prevented and what will you do to make sure other people don’t go through the same thing?

These are the questions Jesse Singer asks readers to ask in his book 2022. No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injuries and Disasters—Who Wins and Who Pays the Price. Drawing on history, interviews and personal experience—her best friend died when a drunk driver hit him on his bike—Singer explores the conditions that lead to “accidents,” from nuclear meltdowns to drug overdoses to slip-and-fall injuries.

I caught up with Singer to discuss this little word that she says is getting in the way of the structural changes that can make our lives safer. We talked a lot about cars.

This conversation has been edited and shortened for clarity.

What is an accident?

Traditionally, the dictionary has two definitions. One is that the accident is a fortuitous event and the other is that the accident is a harmful event. We immediately say: The accident is unpredictable, but with a predictable outcome.

But researchers have found that when we hear the word “accident,” we actually think “unintentional,” which is neither definition. In practical terms, when we talk about the more than 200,000 people who are killed, quote unquote, “accidentally” each year, we’re talking about unintentional injuries that include everything from fires to traffic accidents to poisonings to drug overdoses to drownings.

When you say “no incidents” what do you mean?

I mean not only that the word “accident” is a trick—a game we play to avoid addressing and investigating a preventable problem—but that nothing we’re talking about here is accidental, unpredictable, or unpreventable.

If accidents were random, then injury-related deaths would fall randomly across the country. This is not so. Blacks die in fires twice as often as whites. Indigenous people are twice as likely to be hit by cars as white people. People in West Virginia die in accidents at twice the rate of people in Virginia. Policy decisions, unregulated corporate power, and the uneven distribution of resources result in an uneven distribution of risk in the US. These are not accidents. These are predictable, preventable events—the results of how we distribute safety across the country.

I was struck by the example of the study that showed drivers were less likely to yield to black pedestrians.

We often think of accidents as a matter of personal responsibility, but really what we’re talking about here is a matter of exposure. A black man trying to cross the street may be at greater risk because he is black, and since most drivers are racist, they are less likely to yield. But they can also be exposed to more layers of risk that pile up beyond that, like the fact that we spend less money making roads safe in black communities. Each factor is a risk exposure, and the fact that some people are exposed to more risks contributes to these uneven rates of injury-related mortality.

I like how you extend some grace to people who use the word “accident” in certain scenarios. You wrote in the stigma section that “when a powerless person says ‘it was an accident’… it could mean that the overdose was unintentional or that any consequence was deplorable… And if the ‘accident’ can offer that person some kindness and forgiveness, that’s a story I want us all to hear.”

I don’t think it’s my place to say who should or shouldn’t say the word “accident”. I came to this book after helping a group of mostly bereaved mothers in road accidents to start a campaign against reporters and the police using the word “accident” to describe road accidents. But when I sat down to write an entire book about this word, I realized that the answer for me personally is not word control. It makes people ask these critical questions, so that when they hear the word “accident,” instead of saying, “Don’t say that,” they say, “Was it really an accident? How could it have been prevented? What can we do next time?’

Do you think there is a tension in the safe streets movement between wanting to punish people who drive recklessly and criticizing the carceral state and the way the police are often racist and discriminatory?

I think the way people who ride bikes and walk feel threatened by drivers and see it as an interpersonal battle has led to an overreliance on criminal solutions, on the police as a response. The police are completely ineffective in solving any problem of accidental deaths, including road safety.

The desire for punishment is reasonable and understandable – it makes people feel better – but it won’t solve the problem. William Haddon, the first administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said: “We are all under the delusion that the way to solve this problem is for more police squads to chase down Americans so they don’t drive 120 miles an hour, instead of we organize cars so they can’t go as fast.”

This is the difference between a punishment and a decision. Imagine a city where every time a person dies in traffic, instead of calling the cops, we call the designer of that road and say to the Department of Transportation, “How did you design this road where this is allowed to happen? How are you going to fix it?” It’s not a matter of personal responsibility, it’s a matter of the design of the system we provide to people.

I read this book in the weeks after the Uvalde Elementary School shooting and continued to think about the many factors that led to such a horrific outcome, from the ease with which the shooter acquired a gun to the inadequate police response. What does such a tragedy have to do with an accident?

Accidents and violence are not so different if we view them not as punishable acts committed by bad people, but as preventable harms. Through this lens, we can actually correct both problems from the same source. The solution to mass shootings is also the solution to random shootings. The solution to the road accident is also the solution to the car terrorist attack.

My best friend, Eric, was killed in 2006. He was a 22-year-old high school math teacher in New York riding his bike on a segregated bike and pedestrian path that runs along Manhattan’s West Side. He was killed by a driver who made a wrong turn into this bike and pedestrian lane. The driver was drunk and speeding. He went to jail.

Eleven years later, another man rents a truck and follows the same route, but this man deliberately veers off the path. They killed eight people and injured 11 in an act of vehicular terrorism.

Others were killed in the same way. But each time, before the terrorist attack, the story being told was “it was an accident” and the dangerous conditions remained.

After the vehicular terrorist attack, the city and state blocked every possible entrance to this bike and pedestrian path with steel stakes and cement barricades. They made both catastrophe and violence impossible.

The point of the accident narrative is to maintain and defend the system as it is, to frame incidents as an aberration rather than a predictable outcome. If we decide that a house fire is an accident, that means the building is fine, the ordinances are fine, the laws are fine, and the problem is the irresponsible people who let the fire start. If you know that black people die twice as often in house fires as white people, and you see those fires as random, you will also see black people as fire-starters, as irresponsible people. The narrative of the incident becomes a justification for racism and social inequality.

What can people do on an individual level to prevent so-called accidents?

Even in your own community, there are millions of ways to prevent so-called accidental death.

If you advocate for traffic calming and expanding public transportation, you will reduce the accident death rate because people on the bus are much less likely to be killed or killed in a traffic accident. By advocating for safe injection sites and free distribution of naloxone, you will reduce the chance of an accidental overdose. Struggling for ADA accessibility measures like ramps and handrails in your home and workplace reduces the chance of someone dying or suffering an accidental fall, the third leading cause of accidental death in the US.

These things don’t prevent mistakes, they just prevent the harm of our mistakes. To err is human. Mistakes are inevitable, but our failure to protect people is not.