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Deconstructing the Meaning and Politics of "Accidents"

There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price

by Jessie Singer

The vogue for declaring certain categories of death “accidents” is older than we may think. “From the Industrial Revolution onward, powerful corporate interests insisted that fallible people were the source of all accidents,” Singer writes. Railroads provided some of the earliest data for accidental worker deaths; almost half of those injured or killed on the job were workers who connected train cars. Many were dismissed as “careless, drunk, or dumb.” When newspapers began reporting on the death toll of railroad workers (recorded at 11,000 in 1892), Congress took note and passed the Safety Appliance Act. The act mandated automatic couplers, saving workers the trouble of standing between two railcars and jeopardizing their lives. The number of lives lost to coupling train cars dropped by thousands in subsequent years. The problem was not individual reckless workers but an unsafe system.

By the time something manifests as an accident, a row of dominoes has already been set in motion. Singer’s favored metaphor for the onset of accidents is a stack of Swiss cheese. Each layer of cheese is supposed to add a slice of safety; it is supposed to cover the holes in previous layers, even as it brings its own holes. In cars, airbags, seat belts, sun visors, padded dashboards, and recessed steering wheels (less likely to impale drivers in a collision) are each meant to add a layer of protection; similarly, fire sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and fire escapes in buildings all lower the chances of someone dying in a fire. An accident, in this schema, is what happens when the holes in several layers of cheese line up perfectly: an aperture of atrocity.

In the 1960s, Ralph Nader began to look at the set of conditions that made driving a car so dangerous. Before Nader came on the scene, car manufacturers liked to blame car crashes on “the nut behind the wheel.” In his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader debunked this talking point, showing how the major danger on the roads lay in the design of cars, rather than in the faults of drivers. He exposed, for instance, how Ford had deliberately delayed installing seat belts in cars in order to cut down on production costs and how the company prioritized design over safety by keeping dangerous features like protruding instrument panels in its vehicles. Such features made collisions much deadlier than they had to be. There was no Swiss cheese to protect a driver who made a mistake on the road. Nader testified before Congress on the need to protect drivers “from paying the ultimate penalty for a moment’s carelessness,” advocating for the adoption of safety features in new cars. His efforts worked; they also led to the creation of several federal agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Yet in the years that followed Nader’s successes, progress on safety slowed, as industry interests gained control over large parts of the regulatory process. To take one example, the NHTSA—the agency empowered to assess the “crashworthiness” of cars—still uses dummies that are modeled on male bodies. “No crash test dummies account for the physiological differences between male and female bodies—in chest, shoulders, and hips—or the presence of breasts, or most females’ physical size,” Singer writes. Because of oversights like these, women are 73 percent more likely to be injured and 28 percent more likely to be killed in a car crash.

Read entire article at The New Republic