In Defense of Accidents

train wreck.jpgWhy can’t we accept an accident for just an accident? Is there always someone to blame? What if an accident is just an accident? And finally, what is so wrong with accidents? We all know accidents happen, but what if accidents were, let’s say, meant to be.

Train derails near Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain

The recent high-speed train crash near Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, caught the attention of the world.  Not only did Spain call off the yearly festivities involved with the much more famous pilgrimage to Compostela, but the driver has been charged with homicide for all 79 deaths. Seriously? Yes, way too serious.

I’m still confounded why we pay so much attention to a single event that kills a higher number of people than usual and never bother to look at the accumulated effect of smaller accidents–those statistics, even when reported, don’t seem to grab us.

For example,, a blog devoted to crash statistics, notes that, “Every 115 minutes, either a person or vehicle is hit by a train . . . . In a statistical study released by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the administration found that there are 2,547 train accidents annually.”

“Train accidents happen for many reasons. Railroad crossings may be littered with debris, rail lines may be obstructed, mechanism failure, or simple human error can be at fault when a train derails or slams into a car.”

So when a nation’s government draws the world’s attention to such an inevitability, raining on a parade in the process, particularly a parade with such cultural and religious significance, one has to question its motivation. They should know better.

Structural damage and the attribution fallacy

They should know better, but do they? If not, something is fundamentally wrong.

In the recent book Crucial Accountability, the authors explain that most of us make the mistake of focusing on person rather than the structural cause, which I believe they call, the “attribution fallacy.”

I think this works for us on a macro-media scale just as it does at work or home–even more so, since we have virtually nothing but common sense and decency holding us back from blaming or vilifying somebody we don’t even know.

But more often than not, particularly at the macro-level, I suspect the cause is structural. Paul Virilio, author of Speed and Politics, argues that accidents are inherent in progress, that, for example, the invention of the train includes the invention of derailment. I would extend that to say that the invention of the poorly designed intersection entails the death and arrest of millions of otherwise innocent people who have suffered from the attribution fallacy.

Obviously we all make mistakes. But now we’re getting on the slippery slope of what lawyers like to call “causation, particularly what’s known as proximate cause:

“The but-for test often gives us the right answer to causal problems, but sometimes not. Two difficulties are immediately obvious. The first is that under the but-for test, almost anything is a cause. But for a tortfeasor’s grandmother’s birth, the relevant tortious conduct would not have occurred. But for the victim of a crime missing the bus, he or she would not have been at the site of the crime and hence the crime would not have occurred. Yet in these two cases, the grandmother’s birth or the victim’s missing the bus are not intuitively causes of the resulting harm. This often does not matter in the case where cause is only one element of liability, as the remote actor will most likely not have committed the other elements of the test. The legally liable cause is the one closest to or most proximate to the injury. This is known as the Proximate Cause rule. However, this situation can arise in strict liability situations.”


In practice, this means the creators of a bad intersection–city planners, contractors, etc.,–being the remote cause, don’t have to worry too much about liability, while the person who has to traverse that intersection on a daily commute to work so that he or she can provide for a family, who the laws of probability dictate will most likely one day have an accident there, get punished.

We all know the government is never liable, but when a major company is involved, say with a train, and, as is often the case, that company has a long history of close government ties, the remote chance of being held liable can prove highly lucrative. Here we see why a scapegoat is so convenient. Scapegoats like the Spanish train engineer keep the flow of cash going, while lowing people’s doubts and fears in a business and also giving them cheap entertainment. It’s a time-proven strategy.

Where the scapegoat trick loses its slight-of-hand, however, is when the entertainment turns into national mourning. Why did the pilgrimage festivities have to stop for a day of mourning? Nobody’s going to die from a train wreck while walking to a church party.

I think ultimately people get sick of being sad. This opens the possibility that they will question their thinking, or the dubious facts they’ve been given, to facilitate any transition in the work of being happy.

Accident-prone environments–why some are acceptable and some are not

If it’s something you have to do, like going to work, then collateral damage is part of the game.

Example: Cheap construction and city planning, expensive commuting, tolls, tickets, and literally millions of accidents. Not from a DUI, but from your average commuter.

If it’s something you want to do to relieve stress and unwind, you deserve whatever you get most of the time. But just so you know, this kind of accident is unacceptable.

Examples: Recreational drugs (including alcohol and nicotine) and unconventional sports like running with the bulls.

Now for the fun stuff: “designed accidents” that cause deaths, but more importantly create revenue.

Example: Liquor stores close early > but you wanted to have a safe drink at home > bars are open very late > you or someone else dies or goes to jail.

Because there is a certain randomness

Now let’s say we accept the causes of problems cited in Crucial Accountability, the book I referred to above, which are 1. human volition, 2. peer pressure, and 3. structural issues. When dealing with people we have learned not to fall into the attribution fallacy. If it can be any of these three main causes, then we cannot expect always to know which it is, especially if it is any combination far beyond are control. This certain randomness, particularly when you accept the idea of chaos, being the infinite universal variables–including the forces of nature–then we must accept that accidents are not always somebody’s fault.

There are things that are still beyond our control

No matter what your religious tendencies are or are not, hopefully you’re mature enough to realize you don’t know everything and that there is still not an explanation for it all. Although we are working on it. We can thank our greatest minds as well as our common sense, not to mention natural selection, that day by day we figure out things along the way and just maybe we can pass some wisdom on to our offspring before we slip and fall in our bathroom one day and meet our maker.

However, if we habituate ourselves to fear of the unknown, we also have the tendency to create explanations where there are none, and this is just as dangerous as real accidents–perhaps more so, because if we choose to believe the wrong explanation, we’re actually more likely to be stupid and fall into a pothole–or our toilet.

The trouble with conspiracy theories

First, sometimes conspiracy theories are right. You might be on to something. But how do you know until you have verified? Until then, if you’re wrong, you’re putting all your eggs into one basket, so to speak, and could be blindsided. On the other hand a little paranoia is not all that bad, like a grain of salt, and it’s technically not paranoia if you’re right.

Fear and hospital bills

If you constantly worry about accidents, not only will you be easily manipulated, most likely, but you will probably pay higher hospital bills than someone exactly like you who doesn’t worry.

Accidents can be good

Isn’t it odd when a horrible thing turns out to be the best thing? I’m amazed at how often that happens.

Any entrepreneur will tell you, failures on the way to success are worth more than successes on the way to failure. Keep trying!

And let the chips fall where they may.



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