Stop calling them “accidents”

“In the new book There Are No Accidents, author Jessie Singer argues that basically everything we consider to be an “accident” — be it car accidents or fatal fires or workplace injuries — are in fact not accidents at all. Humans, Singer writes, make mistakes all the time, but it’s the dangerous conditions in our built environments that result in fatal consequences. Larger systemic forces, shaped by corporations and governments, intersect to create vulnerabilities that we don’t all share equally. Anticipating and reducing those opportunities for human error is the key to preventing needless death.”

“When we talk about accidental death, what we’re talking about is unintended, injury-related death, not violence and not disease. There is a huge swath of ways that people die, from choking, to falls, to drowning, to traffic crashes, to fires, to poisoning, to drug overdoses. It is a massive category that includes much more obscure and unlikely ways to die, like freezing to death or starving to death, which of course still do happen.
These are all considered accidents. But there are racialized and economic differences in some accidental deaths — they’re not universal. Indigenous people are more than twice as likely as white people to be killed by a car crossing the street, and Black people are more than twice as likely to die in an accidental house fire than white people. There’s quite a bit of conditional exposure in whether or not a house fire is deadly, whether or not a traffic crash is deadly. It has to do with different layers of exposure, and that layered causality is really important.

If you’re driving an old car, you’re more likely to die in a traffic crash. If someone is driving a much bigger car than you or if you live in a low-income neighborhood where they’re not repairing the roads, you’re also more likely to die. And if you’re in a scenario where all three of those factors are interacting and maybe there are other factors too, like your local hospital recently closed, which means you’re farther away from emergency medical services — all of these layers contribute to whether or not we survive our mistakes. Certain people have less opportunities to survive their mistakes.”

“We should also be advocating on the federal level to rebuild the social safety net so people don’t have to make bad decisions. Pay people money to protect themselves, to drive a safer car, to not take the most dangerous job or live in the least-safe place. There’s also so much you can do locally. There are a million ways to prevent accidental death. In your neighborhood, you can advocate for traffic calming and public transit expansions, because if you don’t have to drive a car, you are much safer. If you’re able to take a bus or a train, that makes you more likely to survive your trip from point A to point B.

You can advocate for safe injection sites, and the free distribution of Naloxone and syringes. Simply making them accessible without stigma will not only prevent accidental overdose, but will prevent the accidental transmission of diseases. You can fight for in-your-home and in-your-office ADA accessibility, like ramps and grab bars, so an accidental fall is less likely to end in death.

This even extends to much less-common causes of accidental death, like fighting for fire safety requirements like sprinklers and self-closing doors in apartment buildings in the city you live in. It means that when someone makes the mistake of lighting something on fire, it’s less likely to kill people. As long as we can stop focusing on the last person who made a mistake, as long as we can accept that mistakes are inevitable but premature death is not, we can do so much to protect each other.”