John C. Burnham


On his book Accident Prone: A History of Technology, Psychology, and Misfits of the Machine Age

Cover Interview of November 18, 2009

The wide angle

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, worldwide 1,200,000 people died in traffic accidents alone.  A hundred years earlier, industrial accidents were already being counted in the millions.  Economic costs were enough to generate corps of experts and social leaders who believed that humans could prevent accidents, and they launched the safety movement.  They were joined by many well-meaning people who were appalled by the personal as well as economic costs of the mismatch between humans and machines.  But for the most part, the problem of injuries and damage remained little recognized.

Then psychologists noticed that a large percentage of industrial accidents were coming from just a few employees, and the search for accident prone people who could be moved or protected or fired was launched.  These psychologists and a number of alert supervisors found that they could use individuals’ accident records to identify accident repeaters and so lower accident rates.  Eventually, statisticians cast doubt on the idea of accident proneness as an enduring personal trait.  Meanwhile all of society was affected by an insurance model of thinking.  In that model, only groups, not individuals, became the objects of concern.  At the most, accident prone people became part of a “risk group.”  So young, and particularly male drivers paid more for insurance without regard for individual differences.

The most striking change, however, came as engineers began to approach safety by engineering the environments of humans so that they could not get hurt or cause damage.  Highway design was the most obvious way to prevent accidents—for example getting rid of certain roadside poles that took out hundreds of cars each year.  Psychologists and physiologists began working with engineers to design workplaces, walkways, airplanes, and recreational equipment to fit people instead of worrying about trying to change or isolate the accident prone ones.

Little did the late-twentieth-century engineers, safety experts, and human factors psychologists realize that they were part of a general social shift as technology came to be the dominant social framework, determining styles of thinking and problem solving.  If there was a series of accidents in a work site, supervisors did not target particular employees.  Instead managers introduced safety guards or equipment changes or environmental changes.  Over the years, in advanced economies, it became more and more difficult to press the wrong control or move so as to injure oneself.

Trying to get accident prone people away from dangerous technology did persist in a few areas—but not under that name.  The most obvious case was the driver point system, introduced by the state of Connecticut in the 1930s, in which drivers who accumulated a history of traffic errors were denied the right to operate a vehicle.  Likewise, airline pilots who made too many mistakes did not last as pilots.

But for most people, accident proneness became a part of folk wisdom, not a technical concept.  Accidents had gone from being “acts of God” to matters of individual carelessness and blame.  With modern psychology, accident proneness became a trait for which a person was not blamed, but a mark that a person had to have special treatment.  With engineering, however, no stigmatizing was necessary—safety resided with the equipment and environment, not the people.

The history of the concept of accident proneness contains two unusual aspects.  First, it furnishes a transparent example of simultaneous or multiple discovery in the history of science.  As psychologists, factories, and statistics all became conspicuous in Westernized societies around the time of World War I, the idea of accident proneness appeared spontaneously and independently in Germany and Britain.  Not until 1926 did developers of the idea become aware of each other.  Second, as a pattern of behavioral deviation, the trait of accident proneness should have become a psychiatric syndrome.  Despite the widely remarked tendency of physicians to medicalize patterns of behavior, accident proneness never became medicalized and so stands out to show that not all behaviors that could have been, were in fact medicalized in the twentieth century.