Stop talking about 'accidents', start talking about 'collisions'

May 31, 2016

Despite all the empty rhetoric you might hear on the campaign trail, words still mean things. Some auto safety activists want people to start using the words "collision" and "crash" rather than "accident" to ensure that everyone understands the nature of those events.

The distinction might seem semantic--and obviously, it is--but it's an important one with a long history. The use of "accident" began in the early part of the 20th century, when industrialists wanted to spin reports of employees killed or hurt on the job. Describing someone mangled by a piece of machinery as "accidentally injured" helped shift blame to the worker, vindicating the workplace. 

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Automakers followed that same PR plan to ensure that consumers viewed cars as safe. In the press, they encouraged the use of "accident" over "collision" to imply that the events were preventable, subtly blaming reckless motorists or even pedestrians in the process. 

The effect of those efforts lingers today. As Mark Rosenkind of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently explained:

"In our society, language can be everything. How we describe this-- I'll just tell you, in my agency, crash is not an accident. When you use the word "accident," it's like God made it happen. For us, 32,675 lives lost on our roads in 2014. All those crashes, all those lives lost, were 100% preventable. The language you use is important." 

And he has a point. Around one-third of traffic fatalities in the U.S. are linked to alcohol. Few if any of the the drunk drivers involved in those cases meant to kill themselves or someone else, so you might be inclined to say that the deaths were accidental. But drinking and driving is no accident: it's a lapse in judgment and it's preventable. Calling a collision an "accident" absolves the driver of responsibility. 

Rosenkind and NHTSA aren't alone in this way of thinking. To date, several states and as many as 28 state Departments of Transportation have stopped referring to "accidents" when talking about collisions. Even the Associated Press has updated its guidelines for journalists.

Our take? We understand that some collisions truly are accidental, with no one driver to blame. However, we also understand the importance of using the word "accident" very carefully. Since it's not always apparent when traffic incidents are accidental and when they're not, we do our best to use neutral terms like "collision" and "crash" whenever possible. Still, old habits can be hard to break.

For more on this topic, check out this brief segment from NPR or visit the blog "Drop the A-Word".

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