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 rise of the idea of accident proneness has many striking aspects.  The slow death of the idea in the later decades of the twentieth century, however, speaks to more subtle social changes.

Because there was some validity of the idea, it has persisted as part of folk knowledge, referred to in novels, cartoons, and newspaper stories.  Some celebrities and even a U.S. President were noted for being accident prone.  It was a way of labeling people but not holding them personally responsible for their unfortunate trait.  That is, accident proneness was different from carelessness.

Most striking, however, was not the end of accident proneness but the fact that new social conditions brought forth a new approach to accidents and safety.  Identifying and stigmatizing accident prone people was appropriate in an age when noticing individuals, particularly out of a commodified labor force, was enlightened.  Discriminating against them for employment and driving, however, troubled increasing numbers of experts.

The engineers solved the discrimination problem in large part by applying their safety measures to all people indiscriminately.  Moderns will recognize the social style.  We all have to put up with inconveniences so that all variety of citizens can have equal protection.  So the engineers designed automobiles so that even a drunk would have trouble killing himself or herself.  There are rails and other protective devices to protect shaky old people, no matter how much the devices get in the way of more nimble younger people.  Or everyone struggles with safety caps on medicine bottles, which save the lives of many thousands of toddlers.

What nobody talks about is the radical egalitarianism underlying the engineering of safety.  It certainly was never the conscious intention of the engineers who were creating safe environments and devices to make everyone equal in terms of safety, regardless of gender, social status or identification.  The new age of technology in the late twentieth century has social implications that have as yet not been fully explored.

Accident Prone is thus an opening to unexpected insights from attempts to deal with a terrible problem no one likes to talk about, either historically or currently:  the unintentional destruction of bodies and property by technology.

© 2009 John Burnham