For Transportation Safety, Words Matter: ‘Crash,’ not ‘Accident’

It was nearly 20 years ago that I was sitting in a meeting and a Washington State DOT co-worker stopped me cold. I was describing an incident on a local highway that was snarling traffic, and my colleague interrupted my report.

“It’s ‘crash’ not ‘accident,'” he said. “We should never use ‘accident’ when describing crashes.”

I’m sure that I rolled my eyes. After all, I was the former journalist. I worked with media every day. I knew more about language that this guy. What was the big deal?

But in reality, he was right and his lesson stuck with me. “Accident” implies some kind of unavoidable randomness had a hand in the incident. Yet, in nearly every story behind the more than 34,000 annual highway fatalities, there is a cause. Those deaths were avoidable. Randomness? Perhaps. But certainly few were truly accidents.

While my co-worker’s lesson took place many years ago, the casualness with which most of us toss out the word “accident” is the focus of a new video by the Michigan DOT. The minute-long animated video makes the case that everyone who drives should take responsibility for their actions.

Michigan DOT is not alone. Safety advocates have argued for years that words matter and that we should not dismiss the carnage on our highways as simple accidents. The words we use help frame the way in which we see things.

Hopefully we’ll all heed the latest lesson from Michigan DOT, that actions (behind the wheel) matter too.

2 thoughts on “For Transportation Safety, Words Matter: ‘Crash,’ not ‘Accident’

  1. As I understand it, the debate about terminology for motor vehicle collisions began with trauma care researchers in the 1990s, mainly for the wording of medical journal articles. By the late 1990s, NHTSA took up the issue and started encouraging state transportation and law enforcement agencies to use terms like “crash report” instead of “accident report.” Nevertheless, “accident” continues to be widely used in the medical and public health fields–probably because clinicians need to distinguish intentional and unintentional injuries quickly when they are dealing with traumas such as gunshot wounds. Within the safety field, “accident” remains the standard term in the aviation, maritime, and rail modes. “Accident” is also widely used in the roadway safety context in Australia and Europe.

    Proponents of the terminology change argued that the word “accident” trivialized the human trauma caused by motor vehicle collisions. Perhaps that was true in the 1990s, but English is a living language. Nowadays, the word “crash” has itself become trivialized. Consider phrases like, “the game I was playing on my phone crashed,” which often implies little more than a minor disappointment.

    I firmly believe our approach to roadway safety needs to be firmly rooted in scientific evidence. I suppose that if we polled the American public today, we would find that the words “accident” and “crash” are interpreted synonyms for motor vehicle collisions. I know of no research indicating that policy makers or the public take the country’s roadway safety problem more seriously as a result choosing one term over the other.

    If we look objectively at outcomes, we can see that the use of the word “accidents” has not been an obstacle to improving safety in other transportation domains, such as aviation. Similarly, practitioners in Australia and the United Kingdom have successfully established roadway networks that are measurably safer than ours in the United States, while continuing to use the word “accident”.

    With these thoughts in mind, I believe that it is time for the to set aside the debate over semantics, and turn our efforts toward the important work of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries, whether we choose to describe their causes as accidents, crashes, collisions, incidents, or undesired exchanges of kinetic energy.

    • Semantics actually do matter. A growing body of research finds that small differences in crash reporting can influence how readers assign responsibility for the crash and identify solutions, for example, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590198219300727#t0005.

      A public health practitioner was the first person to flag the difference for me. With that discipline’s move toward a culture of prevention they make distinctions between causes of injury (for example, intentional or unintentional) without referring to them as “accidents”. The public health professionals I collaborate with do not use the term “accident” for the results of traffic collisions.

      See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4225791/, for example. From the introduction: “Injuries have traditionally been known as “accidents” or random and unavoidable events. In recent decades, the understanding of the factors that determine the nature of injuries has changed this concept and has rendered the term “accident” inaccurate. Injuries are instead described as preventable events with major consequences on public health and represent a significant global issue.”

      Systematic safety approaches have emerged around the globe as most effective in reducing collisions, with traffic safety also moving toward a culture of prevention. Culture shift requires attention to language, which both leads and reflects changes in attitudes and beliefs.

      “Accident” obscures the preventable nature of traffic collisions. It essentially gives permission to think traffic violence is inevitable when it is the result of many conscious decisions in road design, traffic operations, vehicle design, and driver’s training, to name some of the systems at work.

      These are the root causes of a very one-sided exchange of kinetic energy when it comes to a vulnerable road user. We need to name them and address them.

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