Also published on Resilience
If you watch network television you can see auto companies spending a lot of money making our roads more dangerous. One slick ad after another glorifies massive cars and trucks as they careen around curves, bounce over bumps and potholes, and send up clouds of dust on always-open roads. The message is clear: it’s really cool to buy the biggest, most menacing vehicle you can afford, and drive it as aggressively as you can get away with.
It’s not that the car companies want to cause more serious injuries, but a simple logic is at work. The outsized profits from sales of big SUVs and trucks go to the bank accounts of car companies, while the hospital and funeral expenses of crash victims are charged to someone else.
The way to reduce the horrific human cost of crashes, Jessie Singer explains, is simple: make the companies who produce dangerous vehicles accountable for their damages.
Singer’s book There Are No Accidents was spurred by the killing of one pedestrian by motor vehicle, and traffic violence is one major subject she covers. Yet the book covers so many related subjects, and covers them so well, that one review cannot do the book justice.
What we call “accidents,” Singer says, usually result from a non-intentional act – a mistake – in a dangerous context. When we focus only on the person closest to the accident, who is often the person making the mistake, it’s easy to find one person to blame. But in so doing we typically overlook the more powerful people responsible for the dangerous conditions. These powerful people might be manufacturers of dangerous products, regulators who permit dangerous products or practices, or legislators who set up rules that make it difficult for accident victims to win redress.
With this basic framework Singer looks at the history of workers’ compensation in the United States:
“By the end of the First World War, in most of the United States, when a worker had an accident, employers were legally required to provide compensation for medical care and lost work. For employers, this was a massive shift in their economic calculus. … The decline in work accidents was dramatic. Over the next two decades, deaths per hour worked would fall by two-thirds.” (all quotes in this article are from There Are No Accidents)
She also examinations the rise and fall in prescription and street drug overdoses, and the peculiar laws that conveniently overlook accidental discharge of firearms.
In all these disparate cases, a person making a mistake might pay with their life. But many social actors together set up the dangerous conditions. Economic inequality, racial prejudice and social stigmas act as multipliers of these conditions.
“Accidents are the predictable result of unequal power in every form – physical and systemic,” Singer writes. “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 also examines why “black people die in accidental fires at more than twice the rate of white people.” And why “Indigenous people are nearly three times as likely as white people to be accidentally killed by a driver while crossing the street.”
A sudden epidemic of traffic violence
About a century ago, a new and very dangerous condition began to kill people in rapidly growing numbers. “While the accidental deaths and injuries of workers generally declined from 1920 onward,” Singer writes, “accidental death in general rose – driven by huge numbers of deaths of car drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.”
Majority opinion did not, at the time, blame the children who played in streets, or “distracted walkers” who dared to stroll while engrossed in conversation. Outraged observers would occasionally pull a driver out of a car and beat him following the killing of a pedestrian, but there was also a clear recognition that the problem went beyond the actions of any individual driver. Thus citizens, editorialists, and city councils responded to the epidemic of traffic violence by calling for mandatory speed regulators in all cars to keep streets safe for people.
It took a concerted publicity campaign by the auto industry to shift the blame to “jaywalkers” or the occasional “nut behind the wheel”, and away from dangerous vehicles and dangerous traffic laws. Within a generation streets had become the precinct of drivers, with the ultimate price often paid by individual victims who still had to walk, because they couldn’t afford to drive dangerous vehicles themselves.
Eventually public demand and legislative requirements resulted in automakers introducing a wide variety of safety improvements to their cars. Notably, though, these improvements were focused almost solely on the safety of the people inside the cars.
And in the past twenty-five years there has been a large increase in the number of pedestrians killed by motorists: “Between 2009 and 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reported a massive 51 percent rise in the number of pedestrians killed in the United States, from a little over 4,000 a year to more than 6,000.”
The increasing carnage was abetted by simple of facts of physics which both automakers and regulators had understood for decades:
“As long ago as 1975, the U.S. DOT itself figured out that three factors most determined whether or not a person was injured in a car accident: how much the vehicle weighed, how high it was off the ground, and how much higher its front end was compared to a pedestrian. By 1997, the department demonstrated that large vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks were significantly more likely to kill a pedestrian in a crash than smaller cars.”
The automakers knew this, but they also knew they could make bigger profits by marketing bigger vehicles while escaping accountability for the greater numbers of pedestrians killed.
It didn’t have to be this way. Some countries took a different course. “Since 1997 in Europe and 2003 in Japan, vehicles have also been tested and rated for how safe they are for pedestrians, too, should the driver hit someone,” Singer writes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed similar rules in the US but General Motors objected and the matter was dropped.
During the same period that US pedestrian fatalities were climbing steeply, “Pedestrian fatalities fell by more than a third in a decade in Europe and by more than half since 2000 in Japan.”
Love and rage
Eric James Ng was a middle-school math teacher, a fan of punk music, an activist, and he rode his bike everywhere, every day, through New York City.
Jessie Singer writes, “Eric was sixteen when I met him working at a summer camp. … Eric was magnetic, and I fell in love, right away. I still feel proud to say he loved me, too.
“Eric was killed at age twenty-two.”
He was killed while riding his bike on one of the busiest bike routes in the US, when a drunk driver mistook the paved bike lane for a car route and drove down that lane at high speed. The same type of “accidents” had happened before and would happen again, in spite of safety advocates urging that concrete bollards be installed at potential motor vehicle access points. But those life-saving bollards would not be installed until 2017, after a driver intentionally turned down onto the bike lane and intentionally hit people, killing eight people and injuring eleven others. Then, within a few days, new barricades were installed at dozens of intersections between the bicycle lane and motor vehicle driveways – exactly the type of barricades that would have saved Eric James Ng’s life.
Anger is a natural reaction to lives cut short and deaths that came far too soon, caused in significant part by dangerous conditions that were clearly known but tolerated due to lack of political will. Jessie Singer’s book would be a powerful and enlightening read even if it were a pure expression of anger, but it is so much more than that.
Eric James Ng, she writes, signed his emails with the phrase “love and rage.” That signature would make a fitting tag for her book too.
“In making recommendations after an accident,” she writes, “two goals are central: that we are guided by empathy and that we aim to repair harm.”
That empathy shines through every chapter of There Are No Accidents. Singer wants us to “Remember that the people who die most often by accident are often the most vulnerable – the youngest and the oldest, the most discriminated against and least wealthy – and start there. Start by concerning yourself with vulnerability.”
And if we truly want to change the dangerous conditions that make mistakes deadly, we need to look beyond the individual making a mistake or the individual victim. “Blame is a food chain. Always look to the top. Who has the most power? Who can have the greatest effect? The answer is very rarely the person closest to the accident ….”
In motor vehicle crashes, speed kills and higher speeds kill more. In the next installment we’ll consider how speed limits are set on roads and streets.