I was driving to work on a rainy January morning. It was still dark outside, and I was descending a steep, twisty road. Back when I decided to take this route to work every day, it was still light at 7:15 in the morning. I liked driving through the woods; it was an interesting drive. But in the dark and wet, the road was a little too interesting. I worried that I'd miss a curve and end up in a ditch.

For a while, there was nobody else around, which was a relief. But then, up the hill came something big — an SUV, a pickup truck, I'm not sure. It had glaring LED headlights that, in the context of the darkness outside and the rain on my windshield, temporarily blinded me. I lost my bearings for a second. I didn't crash my car, but I very well could have.

The headlights that blinded me that morning are standard on most cars now — manufacturers have been replacing halogen bulbs, which emit a soft, yellowish light, with LEDs that illuminate the road with a harsher glow for a while now. These headlights are now standard because they last longer and look cooler, but one of the most important reasons is that they provide more safety for the drivers using them. They light up the road ahead far more effectively than the old halogen bulbs.

There's just one minor problem: they blind drivers heading in the opposite direction.

These LED headlights are great for the people using them, but they're a safety hazard for everybody else. They're a perfect representation of the messed-up ways that Americans think about safety.

Safety for me, but not for thee

I teach at a high school, and when I look out at the student parking lot, I see a lot of big SUVs. This is partially because I live in America, the land of the big SUV. But it's also because a lot of parents, when buying their kids a car, prioritized "safety."

This is only natural. Watching your teenager drive away in a car is one of the more nerve-wracking parenting experiences — how can this kid, who can't even get his dirty underwear in the hamper, pilot a vehicle at high speeds? So parents naturally want to make sure that their kids are driving a safe car.

To many Americans, a safe car is a big car. You want your vehicle to be at least as big as most of those around it. That way, if you get into an accident, your large, heavy vehicle won't be crushed by the vehicle it collides with.

The problem is that we don't think much about the other side of the equation. If you put an inexperienced teen driver in charge of, say, a Toyota Highlander, you're putting them in a big, solid car with excellent crash-test ratings, but you're also putting them in charge of two tons of metal and a 265 horsepower engine. These cars may keep their teen drivers safe, but they make everybody else less safe. As Dan Frio of Edmunds writes, "Large SUVs and trucks may appeal to anxious parents, but they are also heavier, require longer braking distances, and are harder to control for new drivers still developing spatial awareness on the road."

Putting teens in charge of big SUVs is only the tip of the iceberg. The current fashion in car design is toward giant trucks and SUVs with high grilles. These cars kill people — they reduce the driver's ability to see people in the roadway and they are much more likely to severely injure pedestrians because they hit them in the head and torso rather than the legs. But many of them get excellent safety ratings because most safety tests are concerned with how well a vehicle protects its occupants, not how dangerous it is for everyone outside it.

This isn't just an issue with cars. Americans rarely think beyond themselves when thinking about safety. Perhaps the most prominent example of this was our approach to COVID. At the height of the pandemic, before vaccines were widely available, a lot of Americans balked at wearing masks. They didn't need to, they said, because they were young or didn't have many risk factors.

Many of these people struggled to process the fact that they weren't being asked to take precautions for themselves — they were being asked to do what was best for everyone's well-being. It just didn't cohere with the American idea that the only person whose safety you need to care about is you.

Whose responsibility is safety?

Jessie Singer's excellent book There Are No Accidents makes the argument that the word "accident," and the way we use it in our society, are misleading.

Singer notes that we think about accidents in two misleading ways. The first is that we think that accidents themselves are simply the result of random chance. They're unfortunate events, just bad luck. But accidents are rarely all that accidental. They can often be predicted and prevented. The way we design roads (or fail to design them), from the speed limits to the size and shape of the roadway, can increase or decrease the number of traffic accidents. The way we design workplaces can increase or decrease the number of worker injuries.

Our second way of thinking about safety is paradoxical with the first. While we sometimes think of accidents as things that just sort of happen, we also often explain them with a focus on personal responsibility. We dwell on the mistakes that the injured worker or driver may have made. Were they being safe? we ask.

Sometimes, these are justified questions. If somebody's driving 95 in a 65-mile-per-hour zone, sure, they bear a fair amount of responsibility for what happens. But, often, accidents happen because of misguided incentives or poor design.

Singer makes a distinction between human error and dangerous conditions:

A human error is a mistake. And a dangerous condition is an environment. To slip is a human error. Water left on the floor is a dangerous condition. To exceed the speed limit is a human error. A road designed to encourage you to exceed the speed limit is a dangerous condition. To run an oil tanker aground on a reef is a human error. Requiring a twelve-hour shift for the pilot of an oil tanker is a dangerous condition.

It's in the interests of corporations and even the government to make us think that safety is our personal responsibility. Workplaces are often full of posters warning workers to wear eye protection or work carefully. New employees often have to watch infantilizing training videos in which they learn that they should wear proper footwear to work, or that they should clean up bodily fluids if somebody bleeds or vomits on the floor.

I suppose these videos are informative for some small portion of the population, but they're really there so that our employers can avoid legal responsibility if something goes wrong. If there's ever a lawsuit over an accident in the workplace, they can point to the videos they made employees watch and say, "See? We did our part. It's the injured person's fault!"

America is a much safer place than it used to be. Pedestrian and traffic deaths are way down on a per capita basis compared to the 1970s (although they have been trending back upward for the last few years). Workplace accidents are less common than in the bad old days of unsafe factories.

But we still have some strange ideas about safety; this country could be an even less dangerous place if we could think about safety more clearly.

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