Don’t Call a Car Crash an ‘Accident’

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Two cars collide on a narrow, two-lane road; a driver loses control on a rainy, slippery night, wrapping his car around a tree; a trucker, briefly distracted, drifts too far sideways and hits another motorist. What do you call these things? Are they crashes, or are they accidents?

It’s not just semantics — to a lot of people, the answer matters. In the New York Times earlier this week, Matt Richtel highlighted a growing campaign against the word “accident,” with proponents arguing that the change may even help make roads safer.

Their main point: The word “accident,” unlike “crash,” can connote an absence of blame, shifting responsibility away from the driver to make the whole thing seem like some unfortunate cosmic coincidence. In reality, though, blame can almost always be pinned squarely on the driver: According to a report published last year by the federal Department of Transportation, 94 percent of crashes can be attributed to the driver (the other 6 percent is an even split between vehicle problems, environmental factors, and unknown reasons). Of driver-caused incidents, 41 percent were caused by “recognition errors,” or distracted driving, and 33 percent by recklessness or other errors in judgment. (There was no separate listing for intoxicated driving, which presumably spanned across categories.)

The term “accident” wasn’t adopted, well, by accident — as Peter Norton, an engineering professor and historian at the University of Virginia, told Richtel, there’s actually a bit of slightly sinister history there. It was first adopted in the earliest years of the 20th century by manufacturing companies looking to evade blame for worker injuries. Within a few decades, though, the term took on its car-specific meaning:

When traffic deaths spiked in the 1920s, a consortium of auto-industry interests, including insurers, borrowed the word to shift the focus away from the cars themselves. “Automakers were very interested in blaming reckless drivers,” Dr. Norton said.

But over time, he said, the word has come to exonerate the driver, too, with “accident” seeming like a lightning strike, beyond anyone’s control. The word accident, he added, is seen by its critics as having “normalized mass death in this country,” whereas “the word ‘crash’ is a resurrection of the enormity of this catastrophe.”

As a result, Richtel reported, many state and city governments are scrubbing “accident” from their laws and traffic-safety programs — including New York, which declared last year in its “Vision Zero” plan that it was shifting its thinking along with its vocabulary. “The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere ‘accidents,’ but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed,” it reads. “Rather than accepting traffic fatalities as accidents, Vision Zero allows us — government agencies, industry groups, key transportation stakeholders and the public alike — to understand traffic crashes as the result of a series of actions that can be changed or prevented through enforcement, education and design.”

Past research has suggested that “crash” may have another advantage over “accident,” too: helping people who have been through a crash to cope with the trauma. In a 2002 paper in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, researchers argued that if an incident was portrayed as blameless, it was that much harder to get over: “Characterizing crashes as accidents, when a driver was intoxicated or negligent, may impede the recovery of crash victims,” they wrote, “preventing them from assigning blame and working through the emotions related to their trauma.” (And if they were at fault, perhaps it would prevent them from accepting blame and working through their guilt.) It remains to be seen whether changing the terminology will have any measurable effect on road safety — or if a term so ingrained in public consciousness even can be changed — but in the meantime, carefully chosen words may make a difference on a smaller scale.