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.