By Charles Layton

Once, when I was a boy, there was a terrible accident in our small Texas town. A child on a bicycle was hit by a speeding car and killed.

The car's driver, a man who was highly respected in the community, was so crushed by the weight of what he had done that he could never again hold his head up in public. He became reclusive in his guilt. Eventually, he moved away somewhere; we never knew what became of him.

All involved were decent human beings and had the town's deepest sympathy - including the driver, because we knew he would be tormented for the rest of his life by the memory of what he had done. We understood.

What I cannot understand is the attitude of the executives who run BP, a company that obviously made a conscious decision to maximize profits at the expense of safety. BP, we now know, was responsible for 97 percent of the "willful" and "egregious, willful" safety violations the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued to refining companies in the last three years. Ninety-seven percent.

Fifteen people died in an explosion at BP's Texas City refinery in 2005. Even after that event, BP failed to address safety issues at its refineries and other operations, an OSHA official told the Center for Public Integrity. BP, the official said, has a "serious, systemic safety problem."

And now, of course, more lives have been lost - and an environmental catastrophe unleashed - due to BP's oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which, again, apparently stemmed from corporate negligence.

We also have the recent case of Massey Energy, the owner of the West Virginia mine where an explosion killed 29 workers in April. In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Massey for nearly 500 safety violations, nearly 200 of which were deemed "significant and substantial," and about 50 of which were classified as "unwarrantable failures." Some of the citations were for failure to control methane gas, which was the cause of the explosion.

If the driver in my hometown had behaved the way these corporations do, he would have continued to speed up and down our streets, killing other children on bikes. And if the CEOs were like that driver, they would be hanging their heads in genuine shame over the lives they have taken. Instead, they consult their lawyers, blame others, launch PR campaigns, and otherwise engage in damage control.

The government needs to regulate these companies much more seriously, and perhaps prosecute some of them; that is all we can do and the least we should do. But beyond the realm of policy, one has to contemplate other questions: What kind of people are in charge of our major corporations? And what is it about running a corporation that can turn human beings into such monsters?

Charles Layton is a former Inquirer reporter and editor. He can be reached at charlesmary@hotmail.com.