Episode 80: There Are No Accidents with Jessie Singer
Jessie Singer: Ralph Nader would be very disappointed in the modern street safety movement. We’ve told the story that car companies want us to tell: that traffic safety is a matter of traffic engineering. It entirely frees them, and they really gotten drunk on that power lately with the size of vehicles. They know the more powerful and the bigger the vehicle is, the more of us who will die.
Sarah Goodyear: This is The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. With me are my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek.
Doug Gordon: Hello.
Aaron Naparstek: Hey.
Sarah: On this episode we’re gonna ask, what do we mean when we say something was an “accident?”
Doug: Right. You hear it all the time when a motorist hits and kills a pedestrian or cyclist, the news will say “It was a car accident. It was a bike accident.” Even when there is a clear, underlying cause, such as a driver who was drunk or looking at his phone or speeding.
Aaron: And it’s not just the news. In New York City, we used to have something called the NYPD Accident Investigation Squad, and that was the police unit that showed up in the aftermath of car crashes where pedestrians and cyclists were seriously injured or killed. What does it mean when the authorities assigned to investigate catastrophic crashes and fatalities show up with the word “accident” embedded in their name? Bicycle and pedestrian advocates thought that it meant a lot, and after years of work, the name was changed to the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad.
Sarah: This problem goes way beyond car crashes. In the United States in 2020, more than 200,000 people died in what were classified as accidents. That includes falls, fires, overdoses. And that number is up from 173,000 in 2019. Just who dies by accident and what we think we can do about it also says a lot about who we are as a society.
Doug: Okay, so we have a lot to talk about, and with us to discuss it all is Jessie Singer, who’s the author of a new book called There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price. Jessie Singer, welcome to The War on Cars.
Jessie Singer: Enlist me!
Doug: Right. No, you’re already enlisted. You have been doing this for a long time. You’re a veteran fighter in the war on cars.
Jessie Singer: I can’t think about a war, any other war that I would like to be involved in.
Sarah: All right. Fair enough.
Doug: Jessie, I think this book is just like a tremendous accomplishment. You know, I think one of the things I really liked about this book is you take something like Silent Spring or Unsafe at Any Speed, which are about very, very specific slices of industry: pesticides and cars, but you’re broadening the subject up to just how we are harmed in general. And the best thing I can say about it is you kind of stick the landing. It all comes together in such a beautiful way. It’s a really amazing accomplishment.
Sarah: Yeah, and it’s really written so well. And so it’s so engaging and it’s so easy to read. And I think that you get at some really fundamental problems with our society that are underlying the way we see accidents, so-called. It’s just a pleasure to read.
Aaron: And I think it’s gonna be one of these books that it really changes the way that you’re gonna walk around your city, your town, your society, and after reading the book, you’re gonna see it differently, right? I mean, it’s like …
Doug: You won’t be able to read the news the same way.
Aaron: I do have one criticism of the book, and that’s it took you 200 pages to say “Ban cars.” We don’t get to ban cars until page 202? And I just thought that could have come sooner.
Doug: Spoiler alert.
Jessie Singer: You know, my biggest goal was to understand that the word “accident” is a magic word that’s really embedded in our society, that we all rely on, that, you know, we teach our kids to say to comfort them. I mean, it’s there in every part of our world. And so I wanted to bring people along slowly. I wanted to assume that from page one, they were gonna be against me, which is why ban cars is at the end of the book.
Sarah: That makes sense. Good answer.
Sarah: Well, I have so much more that I want to talk to you about, but before we get to the conversation, let’s just take a quick break.
Aaron: It’s Aaron here, and let me be honest with you for a minute. You generally shouldn’t be taking fashion advice from me. For the most part, I’m not very well dressed, it’s not my thing. There is one exception, however: when it’s raining outside and I’m walking the dog or I’m picking up some groceries on my bicycle, I wear a Cleverhood classic rain cape. And I look good. How do I know I look good? Because people actually stop me on the street and they say, “Hey, that’s a cool rain cape. Where’d you get it?” True story. And you know what I tell them? I say, “Go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars.” When you check out, enter coupon code “onelesscar.” You’ll get 20 percent off in the Cleverhood store now through the end of February. And for every dollar you spend, Cleverhood donates five cents to advocacy groups working to create safer, more livable and equitable streets. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, coupon code “onelesscar.”
Sarah: Jessie, let’s talk about the inspiration for your book. It’s a comprehensive look at everything from car crashes and opioid overdoses to oil spills and industrial disasters, but as you explained in the introduction, it comes from a very personal place.
Jessie Singer: The book begins for me in 2006, a long time ago that in a lot of ways feels like yesterday. In 2006, on December 1, my best friend, a young man named Eric James Ng, who was a high school math teacher in New York City, rode his bike into Manhattan and never came home. He was hit and killed on the Hudson River Greenway by a driver who was drunk and speeding and who had accidentally driven onto the bike path. This feels like a good time to pause and say I don’t use the word “accident” outside the pages of this book, and I don’t use it in normal conversation, and so I hope everyone listening can imagine my air quotes as I speak.
Jessie Singer: And in 2007, I sat in a courtroom with the man who killed him, who was gonna go to prison. And in New York City, it’s very, very rare that you go to prison for killing someone, but this man was drunk, and that’s the one factor that makes the difference there. And this man, you know, was allowed to say something before he was taken away, and he said to the court, he said, “I’m so sorry for this accident that happened.” And I mean, this guy was drunk and speeding and driving on the sidewalk, and he said it like he wasn’t even there. And I think that was the first time for me that this really common word registered in my brain that maybe there was something more here.
Jessie Singer: And a decade later, I got a phone call from one of my co-workers at Transportation Alternatives, and they said, “There’s been a car wreck on the Hudson River Greenway, and it looks like it was intentional.” And it’s right where Eric was killed. What had happened was that a man rented a truck from Home Depot, and with intentions to kill, he followed the exact same path that the man who killed Eric had followed,you know, quote unquote “accidentally.” And in the aftermath of that, you know, eight people dead, 11 injured, many of them losing limbs, I looked into that space where Eric had been killed, and I found that others had been killed there, too—before Eric died, after Eric died, and nothing was done. And notably, after this terrorist attack, something was done: the city and the state got together and they protected every single entrance of the busiest bike and pedestrian path in the country. You could no longer accidentally or intentionally drive onto it. But accidents seem so inconsequential to us as a society that we don’t do anything. We allow known repeat harms to occur. And I think that’s an important point. Accidents seem inconsequential, but they’re not.
Doug: I remember, Jessie, you’ve been involved with the campaign to change the terminology about this stuff. There was the big “Crash Not Accident” campaign that Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets spearheaded. You were really involved in that. And I remember kind of getting into it with some journalists when that kicked off and people saying like, “Well, what’s the big deal? You know, why does it matter what we call it? It’s just a word. It doesn’t preclude finding fault later or blaming someone, whether that’s in the criminal court or elsewhere.” You kind of got into this in your telling of the story of Eric’s death and what happened. But, you know, why is it important to take on this word “accident?”
Jessie Singer: The reason the word “accident” is such a harmful one is because it’s kind of magic. Just like the man who killed Eric, you know, in the courtroom that day was using it, it is like a giant rug under which we can sweep massive amounts of tragedy to avoid having to look at it anymore, to avoid having to do anything, to tell a simple story. You know, that the reason Eric died was a drunk driver, not that what happened to him could have been prevented.
Jessie Singer: One thing that’s interesting about the word “accident” is it has two definitions and they directly contradict. So an accident is defined as a random event, something unpredictable. It is also defined as a harmful event, which is a predictable outcome, a guaranteed outcome. So even in the word, there is no logic there, which is a clue to the sort of magicness it provides to all of us, the way it allows us to disregard harm, to avoid preventing things that we could totally, totally prevent.
Jessie Singer: I think another important point is that there is nothing random or unpredictable here. There’s nothing random or unpredictable about accidents. And, you know, I talked about what drove me to write the book, and my background’s in investigative journalism, and really what that did was it drove me to start to investigate. And when I looked at the numbers, I was shocked at what I found. My background’s in transportation, so I knew that there were inequities in who died in traffic crashes. But it’s true across the board, accidental death is strictly divided along race and class lines, especially with accidents where policy and infrastructure make the difference between life and death. You know, where whether or not you live near a swimming pool or only have an un-lifeguarded lake to swim in, whether or not you have a protected bike lane or you have a five-lane highway next to your house, it’s a matter of these dangerous conditions and who has access to safe space. And the numbers really bear that out. It’s incredibly stark.
Aaron: Jessie, one of the things that you point out repeatedly and as a theme in the book is that this concept of the accident benefits the powerful. Can you explain how that works?
Jessie Singer: If you look back to the first rises in accidental death in the US 200 years ago in the Industrial Revolution, really early on you see this stark divide in how we talk about accidents. And this is a little complicated because it’s essentially two different arguments, but they’re kind of running adjacent to each other. One side of this debate is talking about the cause of accidents—what causes things to go wrong? And the other side of the debate is talking about what causes harm in accidents. So they’re not actually talking to each other, but the two sides of this debate essentially say that the cause of accidents is human error or the cause of harm in accidents is dangerous conditions.
Jessie Singer: And so early in the Industrial Revolution, you see these massive rises in workers dying. I mean, just huge, untold numbers. And for the employers, it was very easy—and very profitable—to tell a story that the reason people died at work was because they were drunk or they were stupid or they didn’t speak English or they were bad at their jobs. It was really easy for employers to tell a human error story, a story of accident-prone workers. And they really pushed hard on that story. That story extraordinarily benefited them. And what actually changed that equation was reformers starting to look into what the workplace looked like. And the workplace, you know, in 1900 was an extraordinarily dangerous place. I mean, it was just nothing but, like, flying sharp blades, open flames and loose, you know, buckets of dynamite.
Aaron: Coal mines and railroads and steel mills, right?
Jessie Singer: Absolutely. And so for the accident-prone worker narrative, these factory owners were putting forth this narrative that accidents are caused by accident-prone workers, you know, there was very little cost to accidental death. There was no cost. You just had to get a new worker. And so what really changes the equation and starts to begin this debate in earnest is when reformers start to go into these factories and these coal mines, and they start to draw attention to dangerous conditions, and eventually pass workers’ compensation laws. And workers’ compensation laws put a price for corporations on accidental death. So now when a worker died by accident, it cost you money. You didn’t just have to replace the worker, you had to pay to support their family. You had to pay for them to heal.
Jessie Singer: And in that equation change, we see that corporations have to address dangerous conditions, they have to address the cause of harm in accidents to change how things move forward. And accidental death rates plummet. And what’s really interesting is workers’ compensation, you know, begins to kind of weigh the scale towards, you know, one side of the debate. But car manufacturers actually, like, pick up on the language of corporation owners in the Industrial Revolution and take this idea of, like, the accident-prone worker and run with it. And they actually have a lot of success because there’s never a system like workers’ compensation that appears in the road place. No one’s in charge here. There’s no boss in the same way. And so that’s when you start to incorporate ideas like the jaywalker and the nut behind the wheel.
Doug: I want to dig into the nut behind the wheel because I think it’s probably a thing that people have heard of but don’t really know exactly where it comes from, much like, I think, the jaywalking story. When people first hear that they really—their minds are a bit blown.
Jessie Singer: The nut behind the wheel begins to appear right around the time as the jaywalker, and it serves the same function. The nut behind the wheel is a way of making the car accident about people. And, you know, there’s a nut that’s holding your steering wheel on and it’s a fun pun on words, but when you think about what they’re talking about, they’re saying this person is dead because they were such a nut, which is a very dark little joke they’re making. But I think an important thing to understand about the nut behind the wheel—and it used to be an incredibly common turn of phrase—was that, for the first half of the 20th century, there was no notion in American society that the machine mattered in whether we lived or died, that the car mattered in whether we lived or died. So accidents were a matter of human error. Accidents were caused by the nut behind the wheel. And the notion that the big steel box made a difference wasn’t really present. And this really benefited carmakers, of course, because then the cars weren’t the topic of conversation.
Aaron: Just blame the driver and the automaker is absolved, basically.
Jessie Singer: The automaker’s not even on the table yet. Like, we just didn’t understand injury well enough to understand how the car played into things. And so in the 1940s and ’50s, we start to get scientists who start to prove that the nut didn’t matter if you change conditions. The machine you were inside could make the difference in whether or not you lived or died.
Aaron: One of the scientists that you mention is a guy named Hugh DeHaven.
Jessie Singer: Hugh DeHaven is a fascinating guy. He comes to prominence in this moment when car companies are really pushing this narrative of the nut behind the wheel. In 1917, he is in Texas, he’s training to be a pilot in World War I. And he gets into a training accident. His plane crashes with another plane and both plummet to the ground. Everyone dies. He lives, and he ruptures a bunch of organs in his belly. And he’s in the hospital healing. And he’s a smart guy. And so he’s thinking, “Why am I alive and everyone else is dead? I don’t understand. This doesn’t make any sense.” And he gets out of the hospital and he goes and looks at the wrecks. And the reason he’s alive and everyone is dead is that he was wearing a seatbelt. That’s how he hurt his organs: the latch dug into his belly. Everyone else is dead because no one else was wearing a lap belt. And the airplanes they were in, the cockpits disintegrated on impact.
Jessie Singer: And he starts to investigate plane crashes, and eventually puts forth this idea that we can make planes that crash better. He invents the idea of crashworthiness, which wasn’t even on the table before. It was just a matter of the pilot screwed up and so they’re dead. And he would take this quickly further. Eggs were an obsession for Hugh DeHaven, which he thought was fascinatingly compared to our brains because most of the time when people were dying in these injuries, it was a head impact. And he said, “Why can we move eggs, which are really fragile, all over the country? Put them on shelves, move them in trucks, and they survive.” And it’s because eggs are properly packaged and we’re very rarely properly packaging our brains.
Jessie Singer: So he starts to drop eggs on the ground. And I don’t know if anyone here ever in, like, high school physics had to fling an egg across the classroom. Well, so that? You were imitating Hugh DeHaven’s experiment. And he genuinely did this for years, and he eventually figured out that you could drop an egg a hundred feet, and if it landed on a three-inch thick piece of rubber, it would survive the impact. Which told him that what we impact matters. He survived that plane crash because he was wearing a lap belt, which meant for him there was no second impact. The plane hit the ground for him and that was it. But all those other people who weren’t wearing lap belts, the plane hit the ground and then they hit the walls of the plane. And it was the second impact that was the killer.
Jessie Singer: And so this is where we get to seatbelts as an idea. I mean, Hugh DeHaven invents the first three-point seatbelt for cars. And a few decades actually after his discoveries around plane crashes, he teamed up with, I think, the Indiana State Police Department and started collecting photos of crashes and examining injury for the first time. And he came up with this list of the most dangerous parts of the car. And the most dangerous parts of the car were steering columns that didn’t collapse on impact, they were sharp dashboard knobs, they were plate glass windows in the front of cars. And he created this list. These are the most dangerous parts of cars. And, you know, at that point he was running the Cornell Injury Research Lab. He had a bit of clout. And he brought together car manufacturers and he said, “Hey, I’ve got this list for you. These are the most dangerous parts of cars. I figured it out.” And they said, “Great, great.” And then just crickets.
Aaron: Of course. Shocker. [laughs]
Jessie Singer: A decade of crickets. And what it took, and I think there’s a lot for us all to learn from this, you know, as activists and people who want to manifest change, what it took was Ralph Nader taking Hugh DeHaven’s research and blowing it up for the public. He didn’t go to the carmakers quietly and say, like, “Hey! Hey, let’s fix this together.” He said to the public, like, you are being killed in products that you’re buying and paying for, and the carmakers know that this is how you’re gonna die. It led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and to the first regulations of automobiles.
Doug: Okay, so Jessie, you were mentioning Ralph Nader and Unsafe at Any Speed. So that comes out in 1965, and a year later because of its sort of seismic impact on industry and society, Nader is testifying in front of Congress on this very subject. And there’s an incredible quote that he says to tie it back to the nut behind the wheel. Sarah, do you want to read that quote?
Sarah: He says, “A civilized society should want to protect even the nut behind the wheel from paying the ultimate penalty for a moment’s carelessness, not to mention protecting the innocent people who get in his way.” I read that and my question was are we a civilized society?
Jessie Singer: I think Ralph Nader would agree with this, that I would like to believe that we are a civilized society, but I don’t believe that corporations are civilized. And I do believe that corporations run our country. And I think that is where these narratives come from. I also think it’s where a lot of this harm comes from. I mean, if you look at the collapsible steering column, which was something that Ralph Nader drew a lot of attention to, car companies owned it, they patented it, they didn’t put it in cars. So people kept dying, impaled on their steering columns. Airbags were invented in the 1960s. Airbags were required in every car in the US in 1998.
Aaron: Was it really that late?
Jessie Singer: Yes. When seat belts were first proposed, the very first major car regulation, Henry Ford II said that they were technically unfeasible to install in cars and so financially burdensome they would have to shut down every Ford plant in America. So what we’re talking about here is deeply uncivilized behavior by corporations that puts society at risk, that makes carelessness a matter of the nut behind the wheel again and again and again. We’re just on our own out there.
Aaron: So Jessie, you have an entire chapter on blame. And you write, “Blame is not productive. Blame is discharging of pain and discomfort, but blame does nothing really to help prevent accidents, and in fact can make it harder to prevent them in the future.” And Sarah, you wrote extensively back in the day about a case of a woman named Raquel Nelson, crossing the street with her children in the Atlanta suburbs.
Sarah: It was 2010. Raquel Nelson, who’s a Black woman, single mother, living in Marietta, Georgia, she got off the bus with her kids across the street from her apartment complex after a long day out shopping, and the nearest traffic crosswalk where there was a signal was almost a third of a mile away. She would have had to walk all that way with her kids, cross, walk back to get to her apartment complex. So she did what everybody did. The bus stopped right across the street from the apartment complex, She got off the bus. She started crossing the street with her kids, and her four-year-old son, A.J. was struck and killed by a driver who it turned out had been drinking, and had priors, was partially blind, I believe. That driver was charged, but what got the story so much attention was that Raquel Nelson, the mother, was charged and convicted for vehicular homicide. She got a more severe sentence than the driver who killed her son.
Jessie Singer: Looking at the death of Raquel Nelson’s son, it’s such a terrible story on so many levels. Plainly, the cause of death is a matter of risk exposure. We are not all exposed to the same risks, and in this case, one way to understand who is exposed to risks is who rides the bus in the metro Atlanta area? Who needs to run across the highway? And so that explains the death itself. But when you look at the blame, that what happened afterwards, I think you really see the psychological comfort that blame provides in that it separates us from something horrible.
Jessie Singer: I understand why we do it, but Lord, the consequences are so severe because—and I understand this might be controversial, but no matter who we’re blaming in that case, Raquel Nelson or the driver, the blame detracts from prevention. Because no matter what conclusion we come to at the end of that story, we come to a conclusion that, you know, Raquel Nelson was somehow a bad parent for not taking three small children, one carrying a goldfish, on a half hour walk up and back the street, or that a driver was reckless. In either of those narratives, nothing changes. No matter who goes to jail, no matter who’s punished, nothing has changed—the conditions remain ripe for the same situation to happen again.
Jessie Singer: And, you know, I think that was something that happened in Eric’s death. There was a story told about a drunk driver, a bad guy and, like, he was like a bad guy. He was reckless, he made bad decisions. That’s the fact. But him going to prison did nothing to change anything, so much so that eight people would die, people would lose limbs in a terrorist attack at the exact same place, even though the government knew exactly how to prevent what happened to Eric from happening again.
Doug: Jessie, what I found so valuable about your book is we often digest these stories in, you know, a 30-second segment on the local news, but in the Raquel Nelson case, you pull back and you say in Atlanta and the surrounding metropolitan areas, drivers killed more than 1,100 pedestrians between 2010 and 2019. As many as one in every four times a pedestrian is hit by a driver in the Atlanta metro area, the accident occurs within 100 feet of a bus stop, just like Raquel Nelson’s situation with her son. But if you expand the radius to 300 feet, you have accounted for nearly half of all pedestrian accidents in the region. And I was just so blown away by that stat because it tells an entire story of, like you said, who’s riding the bus? Why are they riding the bus? Where do they live? What conditions do they have to endure to just cross the street? I don’t really have a question here, I just found it to be such a perfect example of the value of this book and what you do in that you pull back all of these different layers that we never get exposed to in the telling of these stories.
Sarah: And I just do have to say, to get back to this question of, like, are we a civilized society? Because it’s not just about corporations, right? This is a situation that is a government situation. There’s the Department of Transportation, there are policymakers who look at these numbers, who have these numbers. You got these numbers from those people, right? They know what the problem is.
Doug: And in fact, you say that the traffic engineers couldn’t fix the situation after the fact because it would have been an admission of blame on their part.
Jessie Singer: The thing about traffic engineers? Oh man, does it get dark and deep.
Sarah: [laughs] Yeah, let’s get into that.
Jessie Singer: You know, I think the traffic engineers, who I didn’t speak to in the Atlanta metro case, for example, but I did talk to a lot of traffic engineers and, you know, myth-busting traffic engineers who pointed to the fact that there are two big factors going on here, which is that everything that traffic engineers are taught about how roads should be designed, where responsibility lies, how to control traffic is a bit of a sham. It’s not based on hard data, it’s based on old rules that were, you know, constructed when data collection wasn’t great, when it wasn’t super scientific and when our priorities were different because we were laying out the interstate highway system for the first time, and the goal was transportation and mobility not, you know, protecting human life.
Jessie Singer: But the other thing that these engineers who are willing to speak truth to power said to me was that, because these rules are in place, if you go against the rules of traffic engineering, if you disobey the manual on uniform traffic control devices, for example, and put in a crosswalk where the rules say you should never put in a crosswalk, you are exposing yourself to risk. So in a lot of ways, we are all exposed to risk in the way our roads are engineered. We are exposed to dangerous conditions because traffic engineers are protecting themselves from breaking the rules, from stepping away from the dogma, which makes them liable.
Aaron: I think one of my favorite quotes in the whole book is from Eric Dumbaugh, a traffic engineer that you spoke with who says traffic engineering is a fraud discipline.
Sarah: Yeah, I highlighted that.
Aaron: All of us highlighted that one.
Doug: I was about to say you’re even being a little polite when you said it’s a bit of a sham because I immediately thought of that quote. I’m like, “No, that guy said it’s a lot more than a bit of a sham. Yeah, it’s a fraud.”
Aaron: So I mean, we’re talking about traffic engineers and whether traffic engineering is a fraud discipline. And I mean, in New York City, as well as lots of other cities, we have this program called Vision Zero, which started in Sweden. And you write about it in your book, with a goal of creating streets and a built environment that produces zero traffic fatalities. And in New York, obviously, we’re failing at that. And, you know, I’ve found myself frustrated in the last few years with this idea that street design solutions, that traffic engineering of the street is sort of seemingly the exclusive solution that we turn to, or at least one of the main solutions that we turn to when we’re trying to figure out how to achieve Vision Zero. It’s like, “Oh, a car crashed here. A car killed a pedestrian or cyclist here. We need to redesign that specific intersection.”
Aaron: And what I find myself looking at is, you know, we’re focused on these street design solutions, these location-based solutions, and yet our cars, the weapon, the thing that’s doing the killing on our streets, the cars keep getting bigger and faster and more powerful and laden with more distracting things for the driver inside the car. We focus so much on redesigning the street, but the car keeps getting worse. And you had an amazing quote from Ralph Nader in the book. It’s from 50 years ago or more, but it just resonated so much with me right now.
Sarah: Okay, I’ll read it.
Sarah: “Concentrating on highway design rather than vehicle design serves two important purposes of General Motors management. First, it is extraordinarily cheap. The work keeps three or four engineers busy at the proving ground”—that’s the crash testing site—”crashing a few cars against some guardrails and bridge parapets for the benefit of visiting delegations, and provides the company with the material for endlessly repetitive papers at technical meetings. Second, there are no tooling costs implicit in highway design suggestions. Safer highways obviously are paid for by the public, not by General Motors.”
Aaron: It’s like the focus on street design in a way—and by the way, preface this, I totally think we should be redesigning our streets—but the focus on street design externalizes the costs onto us, onto, like, our municipality, onto the taxpayers rather than making the automobile industry do anything about the design of their own products, which are basically the weapons.
Doug: It’s also a race that government can’t win because it moves at a different speed than industry, right? Like, we can’t design streets fast enough to keep up with how much bigger cars are getting.
Jessie Singer: Sarah was saying earlier it’s not just greedy corporations—it’s greedy corporations and government negligence. It’s both. And I think that’s an important thing to understand when we think about accidents, that causality is layered. It’s never just the reckless driver, the nut behind the wheel, the last person who made a mistake. William Haddon advanced this kind of neat idea. It’s called the Haddon Matrix, about the layered causality of a car crash, which is that there are things that happened before, there are things that happened during and there are things that happen after. All add up to the harm of any given car crash. So before? A driver’s speeding. During? The car doesn’t have airbags. After? They’re in a rural area and EMTs are all far away. One of those three things doesn’t cause the accident. All three of those things add up to measure the degree of harm in an accident.
Jessie Singer: So this is a government problem, this is a traffic engineering problem, but this is absolutely a regulatory problem. And I think Ralph Nader would be very disappointed in the modern street safety movement and the way that we’ve told the story the car companies want us to tell: that traffic safety is a matter of traffic engineering, you know? And it entirely, entirely frees them. And they’ve really gotten drunk on that power lately with the size of vehicles that, you know, they know the more powerful and the bigger the vehicle is, the more of us who will die.
Aaron: I mean, one of the examples you give of something that we could be doing now, you note that since 1997, Europe and Japan have been testing vehicles for pedestrian safety, for the safety of the people outside of the vehicle. And yet that is not something that United States regulators are doing at all, which is kind of mind blowing. Ralph Nader succeeded 50-some years ago to get the automakers to protect people inside the vehicle, but we’re still doing nothing to regulate for the safety of the people outside the vehicle.
Jessie Singer: Yeah, and it’s not rocket science. The technology exists. You know, they have—you know, pedestrian bonnets is a great thing in most cars in Europe, you know? It’s an airbag under the hood that makes the hood pop up, so that when you impact the hood, you don’t smash into the windshield and you don’t get run over. It’s not complicated.
Sarah: But this is what’s so chilling to me. So it’s like, during the 20th century, we sort of reacted to the Industrial Revolution and all these machines that we were riding around in. And briefly, there’s this period where, oh, let’s try to make things safer. And things get a lot safer. And then the Reagan era shows up, right? The regulations are slashed through the collusion of corporations and government, and now we’re skidding into this less safe future. And this is what makes me really ask, like, are we a civilized society? Because fundamentally, it comes down to what do we value? The reason we don’t test cars for the people outside is we’ve said we don’t care. This is what makes me so hopeless about the nature of our quote unquote “civilized” society. You know, the civilization part of it seems to consist more of not talking about the suffering that’s going on instead of preventing the suffering in the first place.
Doug: So Jessie, you know, what can be done? How do we change these perceptions about what is and isn’t an accident and who quote unquote “deserves” to die in these, what we are saying are very preventable ways that we’ve just all sort of shrugged off for the most part?
Jessie Singer: If we look at the history of accidental deaths, we see rises up until World War II and then a decline until 1992. What happened after World War II? We built out the social safety net and we built a system of regulation so that corporations were forced to protect us from accidental harm. The Reagan era dismantles all of those regulations. It dismantles the social safety net, and accidental deaths have been rising since.
Jessie Singer: And so that provides us a real way forward in terms of what we’re advocating for. We need regulations that protect us from corporate harm, and we need to use tort law and sue the governments and sue the corporations to force them to protect us in these ways that they know how. But on an interpersonal level, I think that rejecting this blame narrative is something that’s extraordinarily important. Something I wanted to point out knowing your audience was that after Eric was killed, the New York Times noted that Eric wasn’t wearing a helmet. Eric was hit by a 3,500 pound car going 60 miles an hour. There’s no planet on which a helmet would have protected him. But, you know, noting his lack of helmet, I think—and I think this is the most important point—is the same as noting the drunk driver.
Jessie Singer: And that I almost want you to hold those things in both hands because both those narratives stand in the way of prevention, because both focus on the last causal link, the bad apple, the human error, the thing that a person did wrong. And if we instead talk about reducing harm, about prevention, about putting a pillow between us and our mistakes, even if that mistake is driving drunk, then we can actually reduce the accidental death toll. Something that Dr. Sue Baker said to me, she was an early administrator of NHTSA and she pioneered the first child car seats, she said, “My most controversial stance is we should make the world safe for drunks. We should make the world safe for drunks because if we make the world safe for drunks, if we make it safe for sleepyheads and people who aren’t paying attention, then we’re all protected.”
Doug: That is it for this episode of The War on Cars. Jessie, thank you so much for joining us and sharing all of your work. I think you’ve just done such an incredible service with this book. I recommend it to everybody. You can go pick up Jessie’s book There Are No Accidents at our Bookshop.org page, or at your local bookstore, or ask for it at the library.
Aaron: Remember, if you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today. Starting at just $3 per month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and other rewards and treats.
Sarah: As always, we’d like to thank our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, James Doyle and Martin Mignot.
Doug: Thanks also to our friends at Cleverhood. Now through the end of February, you can receive 20 percent off the best rain gear for walking and cycling. Just visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code “onelesscar” at checkout.
Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. I’m Aaron Naparstek.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.