Crashes, Not Accidents

CrashesArentAccidentsNHTSAFor at least twenty years, bike advocates have been working to remove “traffic accident” from the popular vernacular.

It’s a stubborn phrase, and while we’ve made progress, we need to keep pushing – reminding the media, the police, and the departments of transportation that crashes aren’t accidents.

Americans do a good job of minimizing the effects of traffic violence. Traffic crashes are the fourth or fifth leading cause of years of life lost, and often the leading cause of deaths for Americans age 3-34 (Source: NHTSA).

Yet we minimize them. And while crashes involving people who walk or bike often make the news, car crashes are usually relegated to a couple sentences at most. This is unfortunate; it leads to a lack of attention to traffic safety overall.

Part of that downplaying of traffic violence is driven by the words we use.

Traffic crashes have traditionally been called “accidents.” That, by its nature, changes agency. “Accident” implies an element of randomness – lack of control.

Meanwhile the term “crash” does not absolve responsibility from the actors. [Side note: some people use the term “collision”; I’m agnostic.]

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recognized this problem, and has banned the use of the term “accident” in favor of crash in the materials it publishes since 1997.

Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.

Whereas, use of the word “accident” works against bringing the appropriate resources to bear on this enormous problem.

In 1998, NHTSA’s Administrator Ricardo Martinez said “Continuation of the use of this word [accident], in lieu of crash, works against a public perception on the preventability of injuries and fatalities in the highway environment.”

Importantly, there may be legal implications to the terms we use. Arizona Bike Law talks about this in a 2013 article, and in Alabama,  Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor Brandon Hughes explains the critical framing for juries of using “crash” rather than “accident”:

An accident is something that cannot be reasonably foreseen or predicted and cannot be avoided. It just happens. A crash, on the other hand, is the result of choices made and risks disregarded.

The researched causes of Motor Vehicle “Accidents” are 85% driver error, 10 % road or environmental factors and 5% vehicle failure; therefore they do not fit the criteria to be deemed accidental.

In 2003, Alan E. Stewart and Janice Harris Lord wrote an article about this for the Journal of Traumatic Stress, arguing:

We assert that motor vehicle crash should replace motor vehicle accident in the clinical and research lexicon of traumatologists. Crash encompasses a wider range of potential causes for vehicular crashes than does the term accident. A majority of fatal crashes are caused by intoxicated, speeding, distracted, or careless drivers and, therefore, are not accidents. Most importantly, characterizing crashes as accidents, when a driver was intoxicated or negligent, may impede the recovery of crash victims by preventing them from assigning blame and working through the emotions related to their trauma.

Accident implies a lack of fault, ‘an event occurring by chance or arising from unknown causes; lack of intention or necessity.’ (Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). Here, an accident means that a drive was not responsible, negligible, or at fault in causing a crash.

The important distinction between these terms is that crash describes the event without implying the presence or lack of drivers’ responsibilities. Crash simply describes the event, whereas accident confounds, often erroneously, what happened with the lack of intentionality or legal responsibility of the driver.

Unfortunately, given today’s media environment, reporters have to be re-taught this. Remind them with a gentle e-mail or twitter message, linking to this or another article about the impacts of language choice.

Similarly, remind traffic police of the impacts of their language – citing, perhaps, New York City’s 2013 decision to use “collision” instead of “accident.” Reporters often use language used in the press releases.

Take-away lessons

  • Avoid using the term “accidents” – use “crash” or “collision” instead
  • Remind people, by citing this article or others, that legal and medical professionals argue for this shift, and traffic departments like New York City’s have made it

Further reading

Atlantic Cities’ 2013 article on this issue

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