A car collides with another car, or with a pedestrian, bicycle, or streetlight.
Is it an accident, or a crash?
Some people don’t think it’s an important distinction to make. If you agree, and don’t think the word choice matters, consider this take on the history of how manufacturers learned to tilt the language of workplace and roadway “accidents” to their advantage:
Manufacturing firms and their insurance carriers introduced the word “accident” into industry lexicon in the early 1900s, in an effort to subtly shift blame for workplace injuries from the factories to the workers, and to protect companies from the costs. The auto industry picked up on this trend in the 1920s, as the popularity of cars increased and traffic deaths spiked. At first the automakers and their insurers merely meant to shift blame to the drivers, but over time, the word “accident” came to exonerate the driver, too: One sense of the word suggests that nothing could have prevented it.
The overall effect, say traffic safety advocates, has been to desensitize Americans to the enormity of the carnage taking place on our streets and highways. After years of leveling off, traffic fatalities spiked significantly in 2015 and 2016, and while a preliminary count suggest that 2017 will remain flat or show a slight decline, the number of vehicle-related fatalities in the U.S. for that year will still be over 40,000.
The campaign to shift away from the word “accident” thus far seems to be effective: More and more policymakers are coming on board, and more than half of all states have made it policy to retreat from referring to crashes as “accidents”; in fact, many of them now use official “collision” or “crash” reports instead of “accident reports.” And the Associated Press style guide now instructs reporters to avoid the word “accident” when negligence has been charged or proven in a crash.
New York City has also adopted “collision reports” as official policy, but at the state level, the Department of Motor Vehicles still collects crash data with “accident reports.” In recent meetings with the New York Bicycling Coalition and others, DMV leadership has been very supportive of changing the language in reports and other data-collection systems. However the department’s position is that this is not a regulatory change, but a legislative one, and state government is notoriously slow to move on this type of change.
One vocal proponent of changing the official language is Amy Cohen, who co-founded the New York City-based group Families for Safe Streets after her 12-year-old son was hit and killed by a van in front of their home in 2013. “Our children did not die in ‘accidents,’” she says. “An ‘accident’ implies that nothing could have been done to prevent their deaths.”
Not everyone is sold on the importance of this distinction. Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones in 2015, said, “Collisions are routinely investigated. Fault is determined. The NTSA tracks potential safety problems in vehicles. Municipal traffic departments make changes to intersections. We pass drunk driving laws. We suspend the licenses of dangerous drivers. … It doesn’t seem to me that use of the word ‘accident’ is either wrong or perilous. If we had a history of ignoring automobile safety because it was common to just shrug and ask ‘whaddaya gonna do?’ you could make a case for this. But we don’t.”
Drum’s litany of the official steps taken to address car crashes is precisely the problem, advocates say. Crashes happen, and we look for all the small things we can do after the fact: assign blame, suspend a license, change an intersection. None of those things addresses the bigger picture of how to rethink the whole of urban design, to create safe spaces for bicyclists and pedestrians, to calm traffic everywhere share roadways with people, and to acknowledge that decades of designing transportation infrastructure for the sole purpose of moving motor vehicles through our streets as rapidly as possible has resulted in the carnage of 40,000 traffic deaths a year.
That number itself is no accident. It is the foreseeable culmination of a half-century or more of planning our cities and our lives around cars, and desensitizing ourselves to the human toll. Changing that will not come simply from implementing the latest trends in automobile safety, but from rethinking the very place of automobiles in a society designed around humans. Talking about “crashes” rather than “accidents” may be a small step, but if it helps us to envision a safer and more balanced transportation design for our future communities, it will be a worthwhile one.