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Traffic Crashes: They’re Not “Accidents”

All over the planet, a traffic crash is called an accident. It doesn’t matter if it is a vehicle hitting a tree without causing any injury, or a person getting injured, or worse case, someone dying in a crash; all of these collisions are routinely called accidents. However, with 94% of traffic crashes caused by human error,[1] the vast majority of crashes are never really “accidents.”

Drop the A Word
94% of traffic crashes caused by human error.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an accident as: “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance.”[2] Yet most traffic crashes are due to human error, whether it is because of impaired driving, distracted driving, speeding or even driver inattention. A crash because of impaired driving is not unforeseen. A crash because of distracted driving is not unforeseen, nor is a crash caused by speeding or drowsy driving. A fatality because a person didn’t wear a seat belt is foreseeable. All of these actions are known to cause crashes and fatalities. The end result of these actions is foreseeable and preventable.

In the United States there are over 30,000 deaths annually because of traffic crashes. Globally 1.25 million people die, with someone dying every 25 seconds in a traffic crash. Many of us have become accustomed to hearing about a “traffic accident” and since it is an “accident,” there’s nothing that can be done about the problem. We just hope and pray that it doesn’t befall us or someone we love.

Does a Change in Words Matter?

Properly identifying an issue allows us to take action and remedy the situation. When a patient goes to a doctor because of a cough and chest pain, and the doctor tells the patient that the patient has a cold; there is very little the doctor can do to treat the illness. Yet when the person has pneumonia, there are specific steps that a doctor can take. They are two completely different health problems—one a doctor can treat, the other a doctor cannot. Traffic “accidents” are unforeseen and unplanned – not treatable. But causes for most crashes are identifiable and thus preventable, they should be thought of as crashes.

Words matter when discussing what happened and ultimately how to respond. Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer did a study with participants watching a video of a crash and then being asked: “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” When the word “smashed” was used in place of other words such as collided or hit, the participants provided higher estimates of speeds and a week later when asked if they saw broken glass, the participants responded yes, even though there was no broken glass present in the film. [3]

Drop the A Word
Words matter when discussing what happened and ultimately how to respond.

A New York Times article[4] provides some of the historical basis on when using the word accident for a traffic crash started:

The word [accident] was introduced into the lexicon of manufacturing and other industries in the early 1900s, when companies were looking to protect themselves from the costs of caring for workers who were injured on the job, according to Peter Norton, a historian and associate professor at the University of Virginia’s department of engineering.

The business community even developed a cartoon character — the foolish Otto Nobetter, who suffered frequent accidents that left him maimed, immolated, crushed, and even blown up. The character was meant to warn workers about the risks of inattention.

“Relentless safety campaigns started calling these events ‘accidents,’ which excused the employer of responsibility,” Dr. Norton said.

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, something 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.”

Responsibility for a Crash Matters

Consider two cars colliding into each other, with a driver and passenger dying in one of the cars. It is determined that the surviving driver was responsible for the collision and that he had been drinking and then drove with an illegal blood alcohol level. The driver is now in court with a charge of vehicular homicide. That driver is at fault for the crash, and he should be held accountable for his actions. If the crash was an accident, then there is no fault and no one is responsible. The death was just because of bad luck; it was unforeseeable.

That above statement is as far from the truth as it can be stated. An impaired driver can easily prevent a resulting death by choosing to not drive or by having an alternative plan such as a sober friend to drive. When we call it an accident, it lessens the fault and ignores the resulting pain the family and friends of those who are killed because of that impaired driver and the driver’s choices. Using the word “accident” can even prevent family members from healing.[5] Similarly, when a driver is speeding or is texting while driving, these are potentially life-altering choices being made by that driver. The resulting crash is because of that driver’s choices, a crash that could have been prevented with the proper choice.

Drop the A Word
The AP changed the AP Stylebook’s definition of accident.

This does not mean that all crashes result in criminal charges or even death, but even then most of the crashes are preventable and thus not unforeseen. A fender bender that happens because the driver is too close to the car in front of him is easily preventable by just allowing sufficient space between the two cars. The driver didn’t intend the crash, but the crash was foreseeable and preventable.

Raising Awareness

Awareness has been growing on using the word “crash” or “collision” rather than “accident.” A public awareness campaign called “Drop the A Word” has grown in impact, with some states changing their legislative language, and some media outlets not using the “A” word when reporting traffic crashes.[6] In fact the Associated Press (AP) updated its use of the word accident and now acknowledges that fault can be an important factor in using the correct word. The AP changed the AP Stylebook’s[7] definition of accident, with it now defined as:

accident, crash – Generally acceptable for automobile and other collisions and wrecks. However, when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms. See collide, collision.

Change is coming and there is no question that it will take time. But it is that change that can allow people to recognize that we all have a role to play in traffic safety. The change can allow us to work towards a culture of prevention, not one of acceptance. Whether it is as a driver, a passenger or a pedestrian, we can all take steps to stay focused and make our roads safer.



[1]  Critical Reasons for Crashes Investigated in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, Traffic Safety Facts, February 2015, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DOT HS 812 115. Obtained from: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812115  NOTE: This publication does not attempt to assign blame on the driver for causing the crash, it is looking at any errors by the driver.

[2]  Obtained from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accident

[3]  Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory, Eliabeth Loftus and John Palmer, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, Volume 13, Issue 5. Obtained at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022537174800113#!

[4]  It’s No Accident: Advocates Want to Speak of Car ‘Crashes’ Instead, Matt Richtel, May 22, 2016, New York Times. Obtained at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/23/science/its-no-accident-advocates-want-to-speak-of-car-crashes-instead.html?mcubz=0&_r=0

[5]  Motor vehicle Crash versus Accident: A change in terminology is necessary, Alan Stewart and Janice Lord, August 202, Journal of Traumatic Stress. Obtained from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1023/A:1016260130224/full

[6]  See also “Let’s Talk About Crashes.” TIRF & DIAD, December 2017, Traffic Injury Research Foundation. Obtained from: http://tirf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Lets-Talk-About-Crashes-9.pdf

[7]  Ready to lowercase ‘internet’ and ‘web’, Lauren Easton, April 2, 2016. “The AP Stylebook is the definitive resource for journalists and a must-have reference for writers, editors students and professionals. It provides fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage and journalistic style.” Obtained at: https://blog.ap.org/products-and-services/ready-to-lowercase-internet-and-web

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