Kyle Nazario

Accident free

Accident free

Allow me a ludicrous hypothetical.

Imagine one day you come to work. Where your company’s front office used to be, there is a pit of lava. Stretched across that pit is a single metal cable. There’s no other way into the office.

“Good news!” your boss says, clapping you on the back. “You just have to walk over a pit of lava to get to your desk.” You and your coworkers really need this job, so you adapt. You all learn to walk a tightrope - first on flat ground, then on ropes a foot off the ground. Everyone in the company figures it out, and you cross a pit of lava every day before work. Life goes on.

Until one night, your coworker Chad stays up too late, gets tired, makes a mistake and falls into the lava. Poof. Bye bye Chad.

Whose fault is Chad’s demise?

You could blame it on human error. If Chad had gotten a full night’s rest or simply practiced his tightrope walking more, he’d probably be alive. In a small, limited sense, you’d be correct. He probably would be alive if he’d done either of those things.

In a larger, more important sense, you would be wrong. Chad died because your crazy boss made everyone walk across a pit of lava every day. You can practice your tightrope walking as much as you want, but humans are humans. Somebody is going to mess up.

Forgive the silly example, but I wanted to demonstrate the central point of There Are No Accidents without any real-world baggage. Jessie Singer’s book is a searing indictment of the concept of “accidents.” It relentlessly debunks every popular interpretation of the word.

An accident, according to Singer and many experts she interviews, is not a mistake. It is an inevitable outcome of dangerous conditions in our physical environment.

If a worker slips and falls in a fast-paced factory, that is not an accident (bosses forcing workers to go faster causes more injuries). If a woman dies in a car crash, that is also not an accident (crash tests use male dummies). If someone drowns in a lake, that too is not an accident (most drownings occur in private pools, without a lifeguard 1).

In one of the book’s most memorable examples, an Air Force captain investigates 460 incidents of “pilot error” and finds most of them were not accidents at all.

[The authors] found that most accidents that were blamed on pilot error could actually be attributed to the design of airplane controls. The plane itself was a dangerous condition. Airplane manufacturers had designed instruments for very different functions that were identical in appearance, and had located crucial buttons and levers in different places on different models of planes.

To name one common example, pilots kept confusing the flaps and gear levers—and they did this because the flaps and gear levers looked the same, felt the same, and were not located in a standard place or order: sometimes flaps on the left, sometimes flaps on the right. One of these devices changed the aircraft’s lift and drag, and it was the same size and shape as, and right next to, one that released the landing gear. It was under these conditions that pilots flying through war zones sometimes dropped the landing gear when they meant to increase the ascent of the plane.

Singer offers dozens of examples like the Air Force story. She proves over and over that “accidents” are actually inevitable outcomes of dangerous conditions. A plane with confusing controls is a dangerous condition. So are, for example, cars without seatbelts, or pools without lifeguards.

You can harass people all you want to drive more carefully or not swim in unsupervised pools or remember which side the landing gear is on. That, Singer says, is ineffective at preventing future accidents. Accidents are an engineering problem. If you want different results, you must change the material conditions.

Individual fault is a red herring

Singer hammers home the point that if you care about preventing future accidents, the only thing that matters is eliminating the dangerous conditions which allow them to occur. Blaming an accident on an individual is simply ineffective at preventing them in the future.

In chapter two, Singer tells the story of how when she was seven, she fell over a cliff while playing. She was doing ballerina twirls and you know, seven. She had to go to the hospital and get fourteen stitches.

As she notes:

[I do not] believe that poor judgment is absent from accidents or that personal responsibility has never saved a life. Rather, I will steer you away because this line of inquiry—blaming human error—is at best an inconsequential and largely ineffective answer to the accident problem. At worst, it actually sets the stage for the same accident to happen again. Of course I should not have been playing by the cliff, but talking about that will do nothing to prevent the next person from tumbling over. Fixing the guardrail will.

Singer reserves a quiet fury for people who use human error to distract from dangerous conditions, usually because fixing those conditions would require money. For example, according to critics cited in the book, car manufacturers propped up the myth of the “nut behind the wheel” to avoid hard conversations about whether their cars were safe. If accidents and deaths are caused by crazy drivers, well, there’s nothing Ford can do about that. Never mind things like “seatbelts.”


There Are No Accidents opened my mind. It feels like a way to see the Matrix. Once you realize every “accident” is an inevitable outcome of our built environment, you can’t go back.

The book proves accidents are a choice. We choose, as a society, to allow them. The veracity of this statement makes it no less maddening.

Remember our metaphor about riding a unicycle over a pit of lava to get to work? It was absurd, but only a little more than America’s real transportation system. Every day, 3,700 people are killed by cars. Traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for Americans under 54. According to the CDC, car crashes are “the leading cause of death for children and young people 5–29 years of age. More people now die in crashes than from HIV/AIDS.” That doesn’t even count all the people who die from automobile air pollution.

You could blame most of these deaths on irresponsible drivers, and in a small, limited sense, you’d be correct. Fewer people would die if every driver was more careful. However, in a larger, more important sense, you would be wrong. All these traffic deaths are the inevitable outcome of widespread car ownership. You can’t expect people to drive giant, pollution-emitting machines the size of tanks at high speeds and expect mistakes will never happen.

Somebody’s going to mess up. That’s not an accident.

  1. According to one NIH study of Singaporean males age 0-9.