'There Are No Accidents' Is a Groundbreaking New Book That Will Change How You Look at the World

Jessie Singer reveals who profits and who pays the price.

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"There Are No Accidents" book cover
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

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  • Title: There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price
  • Author: Jessie Singer
  • Topic(s): Nonfiction, Advocacy
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publish Date: February 15, 2022
  • Page Count: 352

After finishing Jessie Singer's news book "There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster–Who Profits and Who Pays the Price," I took my usual look at Twitter, and had a horrific tweet pop up:

In the extremely graphic and disturbing video, we have a man crossing the street with the right of way getting clipped by the driver of a small white SUV and falling to the ground. Then the driver of a giant black Chevy SUV just blithely follows and drives right over the victim, evidently unable to even see him lying in the road. Gersh Kuntzman of Streetsblog writes that "the design of the intersection has not been changed since 2007" and we have written numerous posts about the dangerous design of these giant "light" trucks.

I was shaken after seeing that tweet because whole sections of Singer's book popped into my head. Being an architect, I have always described everything as a design problem: On Treehugger I have complained about the road design that encourages drivers to go fast, to the light truck designs with aggressive front ends that disproportionately kill and have terrible visibility. But Singer writes it is bigger than that.

"Accidents are not a design problem—we know how to design the built environment to prevent death and injury in accidents. And accidents are not a regulatory problem—we know the regulations that will reduce the accidental death toll. Rather, accidents are a political and social problem. To prevent them, we only need the will to redesign our systems, the courage to confront our worst inclinations, and the strength to rein in the powerful who allow accidents to happen."

Another important lesson from Singer's book is the question of blame. We always say the driver is responsible, not the car, but in this case, the driver can be blamed for driving such a big stupid vehicle with terrible visibility. Even Kuntzman was loath to blame the driver for running over the body, just as Treehugger's Sami Grover has written that shaming drivers is pointless when the streets are dangerous.

Understanding how blame is used and misused is a key part of this book; it has been the go-to excuse for hundreds of years. If a worker got their arm caught in a loom or was squished by a machine, they were sloppy, tired, or accident-prone. Car crashes were caused by "the nut behind the wheel." Pedestrian deaths were due to jaywalking. Drug overdoses to criminals who couldn't control themselves. Those experiencing material poverty have nobody but themselves to blame. It is all very convenient.

But it also lets everyone else off the hook. Singer writes, "The chief consequence of blame is the prevention of prevention. In finding fault with a person, the case of any given accident appears closed."

So the carmaker isn't guilty of making deadly vehicles, the drugmaker isn't blamed for pushing addictive drugs, Boeing isn't blamed for making defective planes—nobody is until the pile of bodies gets so high that people can't look away anymore. But that doesn't happen often, so we have hundreds of thousands of people dying one at a time, evidently with nobody to blame but themselves.

"Studies show that this simple act—finding someone to blame—makes people less likely to see systemic problems or seek systemic changes. One prompted subjects with news stories about a wide variety of accidents: financial mistakes, plane crashes, industrial disasters. When the story blamed human error, the reader was more intent on punishment and less likely to question the built environment or seek investigation of organizations behind the accident. No matter the accident, blame took the place of prevention."

As an example of this, Singer looks at one of our favorite subjects: bicycle helmets. She notes that when her friend Eric was killed by a 3,495-pound BMW going at 60 mph, the papers noted he wasn't wearing a helmet even though "mentioning whether or not Eric wore a helmet is akin to blaming an egg for cracking against a pan." Similarly, dead pedestrians are blamed for wearing dark clothing or having headphones on, after being killed by people in vehicles with powerful sound systems, giant screens, and even now active noise cancellation.

So much of this book is prescient, more like reading a newspaper than a book. As a Canadian, I have just lived through a bunch of "truckers" occupying the capital city, calling for freedom from regulation, ostensibly about vaccines but stretching into any kind of government interference in their lives. And then I read Singer:

"As we die more by accident, I predict that we will also hear more about how protecting us from accidents is actually an infringement on our liberty. The trigger lock that protects a child from being accidentally shot is an infringement on Second Amendment rights. The regulatory agency is an oppression of the rights of the free market. The independent contractor may not have access to workers’ compensation, but they are free to work wherever they please. You are free to buy the largest SUV you wish, even when the hood blocks your view of the child playing in your driveway. Without seismic change, this is our future."

In the concluding chapter, Singer lists all the things that we could do if we had the will, things that we have talked about often on Treehugger, from sprinklers in every home to speed governors on cars to SUVs designed to maximize safety for pedestrians.

It is full of suggestions, but I was shaken when I read that homes should be "designed so the sink and stove are right next to each other—so no one ever has to carry a pot of boiling water across a room." I have been either designing kitchens or writing about them for 40 years. Every day I watch my wife carry pots of boiling water while yelling at the dog to get out of the way and now worrying about our toddler granddaughter who is often in our kitchen, and this never once occurred to me. This book has changed the way I look at things, and it will change the way I write about them on Treehugger.

"There Are No Accidents" covers a very serious subject and could have been a dry academic report. Instead, it is an accessible page-turner, like many of the other books that changed the course of events, from Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" to Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed." I believe it is likely this book may rank with those. It is about a subject that has touched everyone, written in a way that everyone can understand, and is a book that everyone should read.

"There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price" hit bookshelves in February 2022. Available at bookshop.org and other retailers.

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