Earlier this week morning commuters witnessed a gruesome scene at a busy Brooklyn intersection. An SUV struck several vehicles then hit a cyclist, tangling the bike’s frame in its tires. The cyclist died immediately, his body covered in a white sheet in the middle of the road. Still, many news outlets reported what happened as an “accident.”
It doesn’t matter who will eventually be named at fault in this collision, which is still under investigation, or any collision between people operating SUVs, trucks, cars, motorcycles, bikes, scooters, or their own two feet. Calling it an accident is a problem because it immediately exonerates everyone involved. Even if a driver was drunk and driving too fast the wrong way down a one-way street while texting, an “accident” says it was all just a big misunderstanding.
Accident is the transportation equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
A growing movement from safe street advocates hopes to erase the word completely from the transportation conversation by replacing “accident” with a word that’s a more accurate description of what happened: A crash.
The site Crash Not Accident has been launched by New York City nonprofits Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets with a pledge for people to sign onto the cause. Using the hashtag #crashnotaccident, advocates are sharing the campaign, often including links to headlines which erroneously use “accident” and urging publications to stop using the word.
The campaign claims the word “accident” first took hold during the Industrial Revolution, where worker deaths were described as such so factories would not be responsible for updating faulty equipment or fixing poor conditions. When Americans started driving, the term transferred well to our naturally litigious society where the term “car accidents” would not denote fault and therefore jeopardize pending insurance claims. “Accident” also helped the institutions that built the roads make it seem like collisions weren’t their fault, either—accidents were inevitable.
In the years since, “accident” has become part of our transportation lexicon. Freeway signs instruct drivers how to “report accidents.” Google Maps and Waze both use “accident” on their maps to warn drivers of potential vehicular congestion ahead. Even the National Transportation Safety Board uses the word “accident” when describing investigations. There have been some successes in eradicating the word: A movement to change the AP Stylebook ended up updating the guide—it now says to avoid “accident” when reporting on vehicular collisions.
But it’s not just properly or improperly attributing fault that’s at stake here. Changing “accident” to “crash” is seen as critical for decreasing traffic deaths, an American epidemic.
Last night, hundreds of people gathered at a vigil in New York City’s Union Square as part of the city’s Vision Zero initiative—a plan to reduce annual traffic deaths to zero—where civic leaders read the names of people killed in crashes on New York City streets. The vigil put special emphasis on the fact that none of these events were accidents—and they could have been avoided through behavioral changes like lowering speed limits or infrastructural changes like improving street design.
As similar Vision Zero campaigns take hold in many cities, eliminating “accident” is key for helping to make streets safer. Especially when a car hits a pedestrian in a particularly dangerous intersection, calling it an accident makes it harder to make a case for fixing that intersection—because if it was truly an accident, it would have happened no matter what.
Beyond the call for safer streets, however, there’s another very good, very timely reason why “accident” should be purged from our vocabularies. With the influx of self-driving cars taking to the streets, and engaging in their own collisions, it will be especially important to be precise in our language. If and when an autonomous vehicle strikes a human, it will matter immensely to the public whether it was a crash or an accident.
AP Photo/Alyssa Goodman
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