Car crashes remain a leading cause of accidental death in the United States, but simple infrastructural interventions that would reduce these 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 off the bike path along West Street in lower Manhattan. Ng was riding his bike back to Brooklyn; the driver, who initially denied drinking, was leaving a holiday party. In a deposition that Singer read years later, Ng’s killer recounted the events of the night in gruesome detail – how far he saw Ng’s body travel, the sounds he heard Ng make and what he said to the policeman who finally arrived on the scene about what had happened: “I had an accident. My car hit this person.
That statement in the passive voice, which dissociated Ng’s killer from the situation so well… My car hit this person — leads Singer first to the defense of transport, then to a broader questioning of the so-called accidents, and finally to the writing There are no accidents: the deadly increase in injuries and disasters ― who benefits and who pays the price, released this week by Simon & Schuster. In 2015, working as an editor and strategist at Transportation Alternatives, Singer helped create #CrashNotAccident, a national campaign to rename car crashes, conveying that political, financial and infrastructural decisions can prevent virtually all deaths.” accidental”. His Google Alert set to “accident” provided a window into the both monumental and mundane tragedies that strike ordinary Americans every day, and fueled a newsletterwhose title offers a provocative question that also frames the central question of his book: “Who can have accidents in America? »
Because I write about transportation, I was intimately familiar with one of the leading causes of accidental death in the country: car crashes (not crashes). Other countries have dramatically reduced road fatalities since the 1970s, while US safety gains have stagnated and now reversed, making us an outlier among our economic peers. (And now our road deaths are increasing at an alarming new rate.) Our culture’s exceptionalism has many sources. Building cities and suburbs around cars means driving becomes almost compulsory and petrol is barely taxed here compared to most wealthy countries. These factors in turn lead people to accept longer car journeys and more time behind the wheel. Simultaneously, American automakers continue to make their SUVs and trucks bigger and more dangerous for pedestrians, and buyers are eating them up, often mistakenly thinking they’re safer inside a larger vehicle. There are few regulations on the size or speed of these vehicles, even though those are the two main factors that make driving them more likely to kill. As Singer says, “You’re free to buy the biggest SUV you want, even when the hood keeps you from seeing the kid playing in your driveway.” Everything lined up to make this situation inevitable, but if someone drove this SUV and hit a child, it would still be considered “just an accident”.
But I didn’t know, until reading Singer’s book, of the similar escalation rate of all accidental deaths in the United States and that the increased risks of dying from them were so unique to the United States. The overall accidental death rate in this country is 55% higher than it was in 1992. The US government spends far more money on disease prevention than accidental death prevention, even though most diseases – in non-pandemic times, that is – kill far fewer people per year.
Photo: Simon & Schuster
Accidents have become so common in American society because our leaders have persuaded us that most of them are random and therefore we cannot hold anyone responsible. Singer writes about Crystal Eastman, a 25-year-old New York journalist who traveled to Pittsburgh in 1906 and spent a year following the deaths of coal mine workers. Although there was rarely a major disaster making headlines, Eastman began to notice that one or two deaths occurred each day. At first, everyone looked like an aberration. But when Eastman’s reporting, which ultimately 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 wrong to pathologize the victims – saying they were drunk or couldn’t speak English or were just accident-prone – to mask the dangerous conditions for which he refused to take responsibility.
Corporate interests were similarly involved in the early days of the automobile. At first, mobs in cities descended on drivers who hit pedestrians, accusing them of “car murder”. A 100-year industry campaign followed, blaming 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, notes Singer, accidental opioid overdoses can seem indiscriminate — what pharmaceutical companies want you to think — until you look at research that reveals how they’re soaring in places where auto factories have closed. “You can call each of these overdoses an accident. Or you might see the complex ways the risks align,” she says. “Not having a job is a risk. It is a risk of starvation. It is a risk of frost, because you do not pay your heating bill. It is also a risk of not having access to medical care, and of not being able to treat your pain” — which often leads to self-medication, which is disastrous.
“What I really want people to understand is that our exposure to risk depends on who we are and how society values us,” she adds, pointing to the recent fire in an apartment in the Bronx that killed 17 people. “You could say an accidental fire is caused by a radiator, but who dies in that fire is tied to historic redlining policies that undermined black homeownership that left black New Yorkers less likely to own their home and more likely to be tenants, which means they have less control over the hazardous conditions they are exposed to.
And that’s the real takeaway from Singer’s book: our accidents, our unique American accidents, are actually the result of our deep and growing inequalities. “In the United States, all the places where a person is most likely to die accidentally are poor. The safest corners of America are all rich,” she wrote. “Whites and blacks die by accident at unequal rates, especially in accidents where access to power can decide the outcome. Whether or not you die by accident is only a measure of your power, or lack thereof. Moreover, she argues, the large transfer of power from government to business changes this assessment of risk. “Because American taxpayers, rather than corporations, bear most of these costs,” Singer writes, “Letting accidents happen is perfectly profitable for American businesses, even when those accidents happen in dangerous American cars or in uninspected American workplaces”. His thesis, though formed long before COVID-19, was only amplified by the pandemic – there are some striking passages about disease prevention – and reading this book at this particular time, when the mandates of masks are repealed without stricter sick leave policies in place, provides a telling explanation for shifting the risk onto individuals rather than attempting to create a policy that protects.
After finishing the book, I found myself cringing when I say “accident”, deciding that really only applied to conversations with my kids. It seemed to me that the word should be almost purged from our vocabularies, which Singer talks about repeatedly. Singer told me she had no intention of controlling people’s tongues; instead, she prefers to focus on the 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 Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s new National Road Safety Plan. It might be a symbolic shift, and one singer claims he already started taking root in the US DOT decades ago, but it sounds meaningful and hopeful.
When I spoke to Singer, it was the day that would have been Ng’s 38th birthday; she wore a T-shirt that said (with deliberate misspellings) BORN TOO WALK FORCED TO DRIVE and FUCK CAR’S screen-printed in neon red. The man who killed Ng was charged with drunk driving and manslaughter with a vehicle; had he been sober, we agreed he almost certainly would not have been convicted of anything. But a simple infrastructural intervention could have probably prevented the driver from going to jail and saved Ng’s life, and there is perhaps no better example of how American society decides who is protected than right there on West Street. “The Bloomberg administration really wanted Goldman Sachs to build their big New York headquarters on that pier lot across the bike path,” Singer says. “Goldman Sachs looked at it and said, ‘It looks like a place people are going to drive to. Mayor Bloomberg, we’ll build our headquarters here, but you have to get rid of all this. And that’s what the city did. “They didn’t protect the bike path,” Singer said. “They did not protect fragile human bodies. But they protected Goldman Sachs.