Cover image for Jessie Singer's book *There Are No Accidents*

There Are No Accidents is a polemical title for a revolutionary book. At its core is this idea: We live in a world suffused with people who suffer from “accidents” because we live in a world with environments allowed to be, often built to be, dangerous. The book’s radical assertion is that unforeseen events do not necessarily cause excessive harm. In a properly designed system, things can go off the rails without actually going off the rails.

Singer’s book focuses on unintended injuries and their various causes. And Singer approaches this topic as a smart, careful journalist. She has read—and duly, generously cites—academic literature on safety and risk from automobiles to nuclear power-plants. There’s quite a bit of (to my mind) well-digested history herein, coupled with the voices of experts and activists who seek to make our world generally safer. Here I think I should stress that safer does not mean more boring. A good safe environment encourages risk taking. When a well-engineered fall won’t end in tragedy, there’s less reason not to jump.

Singer tells her own story—really the story of a beloved friend, Eric—to carry readers toward the revolution in worldview and spirit that the book seeks. Eric died when a driver in a car that was moving too fast struck him and his bicycle. As Singer watches the driver in court, sentenced to prison, she sees a man about to be taken away from his children just as Eric was from his own, and she does not feel like this is justice. Surely, the driver was to blame, but she argues that the blame would be better aimed at those who put cars moving fast and bicycles in close proximity, when they could have done otherwise. Those who make dangerous environments or allow them to persist are more to blame than those who more immediately bring a harm to fruition.

And as Singer reveals, the terrible, “accidental” collision that took Eric’s life was actually one of multiple in the same small area of Chelsea, where a popular bike path came together with a major highway—long before Eric died, the city had been made aware by advocates that this was a dangerous environment, and it put off action. Only after a mortifying act of terrorism did city make the necessary fixes to safely separate bike traffic from speeding cars.

Singer’s ethos resonated deeply with me. I was at first resistant to the title. I believe in “accidents,” by which I mean things that happen by chance. I believe, for that matter, that most of life is accidental, suffused with chance. As I read, though, I realized that Singer was up to something different. She too acknowledged the unpredictability of life. But she had discovered something in her studies: those who are the most well off somehow end up much more likely than others to survive life’s accidents. As she summarizes some of those findings:

Decades after the decisions to build or not build a train, people of color are more likely to lack an alternative to driving, walking, or biking on or near unsafe roads, and thus suffer the accidents that result …Accidents are a matter of being a certain person at a certain place at a certain time. Whiteness protects. And the one thing that can change the fate of the ‘accident prone’ is cash.

We can acknowledge and even embrace chance, without resigning ourselves to deadly outcomes. We can celebrate chance and enjoy it together, the more we are committed to creating equitable, safe environments for everyone.

You, my dear reader, may feel that this is asking too much. I will freely admit it is a world-changing vision. It reminds me of a concept central to my own religious faith: grace. In my own heretical, vaguely Calvinist interpretations of Christianity, the central reality of existence is how deeply flawed it is and we are. The world is one where things go wrong, where people go wrong, all the time. “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer implores, precisely because temptation is inevitable. “But deliver us from evil,” it continues, because after stuff goes sideways, we each need someone, something to catch us. (And let us not forget “forgive us our trespasses”!) Grace is a theological manifestation of a safe environment. With grace, people make mistakes, but divine forgiveness softens the fall. (And yes: I do therefore believe that Christians should love Singer’s vision. And no: I am not hopeful that most American churches actually will embrace it…but what if it they did?!?!)

This book resonated very deeply for me, striking a chord with my professional, professorial beliefs too. At one point while reading, I thought of Larry Summers, the former Treasury Department official and one-time President of Harvard. Many of you will remember what precipitated Summers’ departure from his Harvard presidency. In 2005, Summers spoke at a National Bureau of Economic Research luncheon, and raised a question: what if the reason there were fewer women scientists was because women weren’t (as a group) as good at science as men?

I think Singer’s framework can encompass this sort of scenario. Summers, as president, was responsible for building an educational environment (along with many others). It was his job to help build an institution where students and faculty could go out on a limb and fall without cracking open their metaphorical skulls. It should be the job of a university to make it possible for all students to learn, and hopefully to succeed. When Summers tried to blame those whose heads were cracking (a cohort of women scientists who hadn’t been given a secure environment to succeed), he gave up on the entire project of educating everyone. He chose to blame people, rather than to re-engineer Harvard.

As you’re reading this, you may be bristling. I’ve struggled even to figure out how to write it, because these ideas run so powerfully counter to the prevailing ideology that I grew up with in eighties/nineties America. Of course, it is also thrilling. When we, as a society, decide that all people ought to be able to become scientists, regardless of gender, we can do that. When we, as a community, decide that people a right to safe housing and or a healthy workplace or walkways free of vehicular menace, that too is possible. It “just” takes the collective will to devote necessary time and resources to make such a change possible. But to not devote such resources, is to choose instead some other set of priorities and values. To object and say “that is too expensive” is to say, rather, offering equal opportunities to all genders is not as important as…something else. And in many cases, that something else may well be a corporation’s wealth or an institution’s traditions or an individual’s comfort (like my own).

Singer notes in the book that surveys show that white men are much more likely than others to say that the risks in our society are worth taking. It is not hard to see why: those men (like me) walk around taking risks in an environment where they might well fall, but usually won’t fall far, or won’t fall badly, and will be okay. (In extreme cases, think finance or tech, guys fail up repeatedly!) Singer does not want to take this privilege from white men: she wants white men to commit to making that privilege a universal one. We should build spaces, streets, and institutions where everyone can fail or fall and survive to try again.