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July book of the month: There Are No Accidents by Jessie Singer

The July book of the month is There Are No Accidents: the Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster – Who Profits and Who Pays the Price (Simon and Schuster, 2022) by Jessie Singer, a journalist based in Brooklyn. 

Singer examines what is behind so-called “accidental” deaths and injuries in the United States - oil spills, opioid overdoses, traffic crashes, and the like – and demonstrates that they are preventable and predictable. When tragic accidents happen, we tell ourselves a story about human error and blame the victim for getting hurt or dying while ignoring or downplaying the conditions that were ripe for the accident to happen in the first place. 

In my line of work, this brings to mind roads too wide to cross safely, missing curb cuts that force wheelchair users into the street, painted bike lanes that do virtually nothing to separate cyclists from traffic. These conditions are dangerous, yet when someone is hit by a car, too often the narrative is framed as their fault - He was jaywalking; she wasn’t wearing a helmet; they were wearing dark clothing.

Nothing in the book about road and traffic crashes came as a surprise to me. Street design, vehicle size, and outsized emphasis on personal responsibility and law enforcement all contribute to the safety crisis on American roads. Transportation advocates know this. Singer captures the absurdity of traffic engineering in a simple sentence:

We build roads exclusively for perfect people.

However, Singer writes about much more than just road safety. She also delves into workplace safety (fun fact: Wisconsin was the first state to pass workers’ compensation law in the year 1911), opioids, guns, toxic waste, and drownings. And she walks the reader through more than 100 years of the history of American labor and federal regulation to explain how we got here. Laws that criminalize things like addiction and jaywalking but don’t hold industries responsible for lax safety standards make Americans appear to be accident-prone. Racism, of course, plays a large role. 

Redlining in the 1930s and 1940s undermined Black homeownership and empowered the (racist) builders of America’s earl highways to build those roads straight through Black neighborhoods. Then, the highways were a segregationist tool. Today, Black people are still less likely to own their homes and more likely to live near a highway. Those historic policies cause accidents now. People who don’t own their homes are more likely to die in an accidental fire. ..Living near highways delivers more drivers traveling at highway speeds to residential streets, and people who live near highways are more likely to be killed in a car accident…. In this way, policies of economic and racial segregation of one generation can lead to accidents in the next.

Last week, Carl Glasemeyer and I saw this up close when we attended the Accessible Transportation Summit in Minneapolis hosted by the RE-AMP Network. We learned the history of Olsen Memorial Highway in north Minneapolis, which was built to cut through a thriving Black and Jewish neighborhood and is now the most dangerous road in the city for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Accidents are not a design problem…accidents are a political and social problem.

As part of the Summit, we made a pilgrimage journey to George Floyd Square. Our guides are residents and activists from the neighborhood, and they showed us murals and memorials and heartbreakingly long lists of names of men, women, and children (yes, children) who have died at the hands of police violence. At the end of our time together, one of the guides asked the group, “How many of you think the system is broken?” Many hands went up. “You’re wrong,” she said, “the system is working exactly as designed.”

I am writing this in early July 2024, just after the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a number of rulings that weaken the regulatory power of government agencies, undermine agency expertise, and grant broad immunity from prosecution to the president. Is this the system failing us or working as designed? I don’t know the answer to this question. I don’t feel any safer. 

Blaming human error remains the industry norm today. 

Singer is a brilliant journalist and writer, but I’ll be honest, this was a rough read. A whole book about gruesome death and injury is a lot to take in. Each chapter left me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if the next terrible accident is waiting to happen to me or someone I love. It’s personal for her. She opens the book with the tragic story of her best friend, who was killed by a drunk driver on the streets of New York City. 

It’s personal for me, too. Soon after I started reading There Are No Accidents, my husband had a nasty fall while biking home from work. It was a clear, sunny day. No car was involved. Nothing startled him. He didn’t notice a hole or other flaw in the pavement. It happened like this: one moment he was riding, and the next moment he found himself on the ground in a lot of pain with the bike on top of him. A few hours in the ER confirmed broken bones (left collarbone, right arm) but thankfully no concussion or internal injuries. It could have been worse. Despite everything I now know about accidents being predictable and preventable, the cause of his crash is a mystery and probably always will be.

Ultimately, Jessie Singer is writing about the consequences of concentrated power. In her opening chapter, she says,

Across the United States, and across history, I found this as a common marker of accidents. The people who tell the story are always the powerful ones, and the powerful ones are rarely the victims.

Remember this the next time you read about a traffic crash or an overdose or a toddler who fires a gun or a teenager who is mauled in a meat packing plant. What to do? Singer calls for accountability, prevention, better federal regulation, an end to tort reform. She also doesn’t use the word “accident” anymore and encourages all of us to do the same.

Our love and rage are all we have.

Susan Gaeddert is Community Programs Director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, where she runs Active Wisconsin, facilitates the Community Transportation Academy, and coordinates the Wisconsin Climate Table. Have you read any good books lately? Send your recommendation to: 

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