“Accident” was the first word I learned at journalism school, in Teeline shorthand at least, denoted by a simple “x” amongst all the complex squiggles of other words, inspiring a collective gasp of relief in the ever-accelerating daily shorthand tests.
Some 30 years later, journalistic transcribing is mostly done by robot slaves who live in a cloud, but “accident” still prevails as the most common word quoted to local beat journalists. I see it on the Hong Kong police blotter around 150 times a day – and in almost all cases, I’ve always suspected, the reported incident was no accident.
Enter Jessie Singer, a fierce and creative author and activist who was angered by the word even before her best friend Eric Ng died at the hands of a drunk driver in 2006. Singer’s best-selling book There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price (February 2022) leaves no place for the word to hide, with 22-year-old Eric’s death woven into the text as inspiration for the book itself, as careful illumination of trickery at work, and finally as touch-paper for a righteous anger at the utter failure of systems where a tragedy was so utterly predictable and preventable and yet dismissively labelled “an accident” by those in power. Nothing to see here.
Singer’s outstanding work deftly outlines the global (and historic) issue: that the very word “accident” reduces all these deaths to a shrug. That the “blame game” points fingers at bogeymen while avoiding the real issue of solving dangerous road conditions. And that privilege, institutional racism and misogyny amplify the effect, keeping the poorest and most powerless fighting for their lives in the name of profit.
Singer starts by neatly educating readers in accident theory, separating the two elements of any accident: human error and dangerous conditions. A driver breaking the speed limit is human error; but a road that encourages drivers to exceed the speed limit is a dangerous condition.
Crucially, and perhaps controversially to corporations and governments, Singer contends that all human error can be traced back to dangerous conditions, and that those dangerous conditions can be improved to make mistakes “less of a life or death equation”. Designing the world for drunks – an idea floated in the book – makes for a more forgiving world, a more realistically safe world, than designing for sensible people.
Singer rightly devotes a lot of effort to analysing the language of road crashes and worker deaths in the media: it’s the people with power who tell the story, be it the driver or police officers on a scene with a dead pedestrian who cannot share their version of events; or a factory owner accounting for a dead employee; or a newspaper proprietor spinning an angle for advertisers. Although the word “accident” has actually fallen out of favour in New York City and dozens of US state-level departments of transportation, those in power continue to ensure that the word rings easily and often in the ears of the influential.
There Are No Accidents artfully conveys how the minimising of the importance of so-called accidental death has indeed itself been no accident. The car industry, firearms, nuclear power and oil firms have all deceived by deliberately creating villains and elaborate hoaxes to blame individuals rather than their own products, institutional failures or lax regulatory regimes.
Transport activists, for example, likely know of the invention of “jaywalking” in the early 20th century, but Singer starkly re-frames the tale with a shift in context and in parallel with accounts from firearms, nuclear and oil, elevating the folklore from trivia to an agonising revelation of a greedy oppressor’s playbook.
And a century later, the car business is still at it.
“The ‘distracted pedestrian’ is a new version of an old trick,” the author and journalist writes, “redirecting focus from a dangerous condition to an individual mistake”, an idea Singer says was borrowed from industrialists during the deadly (for workers) Industrial Revolution.
Of course, the Hong Kong government plays this trick on us all the time, from Transport Department’s fragile “Mr Safegg” to the red light projection on the streets to prevent “distracted pedestrians” walking into the road. It’s not just in transport – posters on the MTR remind construction workers to clip in safely, with no mention of whether the employer encourages this or allows workers the time to be safe, and smartly gaslighting the general public to believe that future dead workers forgot their duty. The “accident” playbook demands these diversionary tactics: individuals are accountable and thus to blame.
Singer is also an activist – she practically invented the ghost bike and she’s supremely active on the New York City transport scene – and her activist talents give the book an edge. I found myself copying out huge sections, like some monk illuminating a religious text, with so many sentences crying out to be daubed on a banner and shoved in someone’s face. “Blame is a food chain” was one of my favourites but there’s a rich source of slogans in here for all occasions.
Among the many interviews, there’s a frank exchange with transport safety legend Ralph Nader, who’s recently described Tesla’s self-driving technology as “one of the most dangerous and irresponsible actions by a car company in decades”. Singer asks Nader what language could replace “accident”?
Nader suggests “corporate homicide”, which sounds a bit daring at first. Homicide perhaps needs a murderer and looking for the culprit might accidentally lead us to playing the blame game: pointing fingers without changing anything. As the book clearly says, in a number of ways, “blame, in accidents, reveals the psychology of the blamer and not much else”.
But what if we accepted the challenge of using “homicide” instead of accident, at least in the first draft of a story or at the opening of an investigation or when discussing amongst friends or asking the government questions? If the whodunnit were played more in the spirit of Who Killed Davey Moore? than “which individual or piece of metal should be blamed, arrested and charged tomorrow?” then perhaps fewer individuals would be so routinely extinguished.
Hong Kong saw 263 fatal workplace injuries in 2021, a rate on a par with Belize and more than double the UK’s entire actual workplace death toll for the year. Remarkably, very few of these individual tragedies made the press, leaving the average Hong Konger with little clue how much blood is spilled in the construction and operation of their buildings, roads and train lines, in the preparation of their food and clothes or in the delivery of their goods.
And almost all are reported by authorities as “accidents”, a gross injustice to those who died and to their families, and giving a free pass to corporations who continue to cut corners in pursuit of profits.
All this makes Singer’s There Are No Accidents perhaps the most important book for Hong Kong this year, a toolbox to tackle the city’s dangerously flippant approach to preventable deaths in the workplace and on the roads. Whether our government will listen is another matter – it pledged to look into crash reporting language last June, with no signs of progress – but with the facts laid bare in one handy volume there’s little excuse to tolerate our third-world workplace death-rate or the constant vehicular homicide on our streets.
The book is published in English by Simon and Schuster, while Singer says a Chinese version is in the offing, to be published by Faces Publications, a division of Cité Publishing, in Taiwan.
There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price. SINGER, Jessie. Published by Simon & Schuster. Kindle edition US$14.99.