Thursday, August 27, 2015

How Much Does a Word Matter?

Thanks to Kevin Drum, I have discovered a nationwide movement to change how we talk about automobile accidents. Emily Badger in the Post:
An "accident" is, by definition, unintentional. We accidentally drop dinner plates, or send e-mails before we're done writing them. The word also suggests something of the unforeseen — an event that couldn't have been anticipated, for which no one can be blamed. That second connotation is what irks transportation advocates who want to change how we talk about traffic collisions. When one vehicle careens into another or rounds a corner into a pedestrian — call it a "crash," they say, not an "accident."

"Our children did not die in 'accidents,'" says Amy Cohen, a co-founder of the New York-based group Families for Safe Streets. Her 12-year-old son was hit and killed by a van on the street in front of their home in 2013. "An 'accident,'" she says, "implies that nothing could have been done to prevent their deaths."
Whoa. Since when does calling something an accident mean nobody was at fault, or that nothing can be done about it? That is, I would say, simply wrong. An accident is something that was done unintentionally, nothing more. Most traffic accidents, to take just one example, are found to be the fault of one driver or the other. Another activist:
"If we stopped using that word, as individuals, as a city, in a national context, what questions do we have to start asking ourselves about these crashes?" says Caroline Samponaro, deputy director at Transportation Alternatives. How did they happen? Who was to blame? An erratic driver? A faulty vehicle? A perpetually dangerous intersection?
Like Drum, I am baffled by this. Are these people saying that we as a society don't care about traffic deaths and are not doing anything about the problem? Drum:
I'm mystified. We already do all that stuff. Collisions are routinely investigated. Fault is determined. The NTSA tracks potential safety problems in vehicles. Municipal traffic departments make changes to intersections. We pass drunk driving laws. We suspend the licenses of dangerous drivers.
After Drum published his first post on the issue, dozens of people took him on on Twitter: 
@DroptheAword: 30k people die on US roads each yr. Acceptance of this as inevitable comes from the “accidents happen” mindset.

@jakekthompson: Calling a crash an "accident" takes blame away from the cause, and removes incentive to fix the problem.
This is magical thinking. Changing the words we use does not change the world; I would say that it rarely changes much of anything. Sometimes it makes people feel better -- which is not an insignificant thing -- but if what you want is to reduce traffic fatalities, you need a better approach.

Reducing the rate of accidents in any dangerous system is a very hard problem. I have written here before about the ongoing battle to reduce hospital errors, which are usually called errors rather than accidents but have not as a result magically disappeared. One thing safety experts say about all such situation is that blaming people who mess up does no good: "Telling people to be careful is not effective." Instead the focus has shifted to designing systems to make human error much less likely. For driving that means separating the lanes of traffic using median strips and roundabouts, and installing sensors and automatic braking systems in cars. One common kind of accident was almost eliminated by designing transmissions so that you can't put the car in gear without having your foot on the brake.

That is taking the problem seriously; tweeting about the word "accident" is not.


G. Verloren said...

I'm convinced that this sort of behavior is a product of people feeling helpless and desperately attempting to find something, anything, which they feel they can control or influence.

That's actually a pretty typical psychological response to extreme trauma such as losing a child in a car accident, which seems to be a theme among the members of this movement. I suspect they're somewhat in denial about what happened - they can't accept that they lost their children to forces beyond their control, to something as "impersonal" and "meaningless" as chance or misfortune. They want to assign blame to something, anything at all.

They can't stop cars from crashing, so they look at crash safety. But crash safety is already pretty stellar, and it's being continually studied and improved upon about as quickly as is possible. There's nothing much about the concrete, practical aspects of car crashes and how we deal with them that we could meaningfully improve upon at the moment.

So they turn their attention to less concrete matters. They get upset about word usage - they don't like thinking that they lost a child to an "accident". And yet, there's nothing really wrong with the word choice of "accident" being used regarding car crashes.

So they have to strain to distort the usage, claiming that the word "accident" somehowimplies - not means, mind you! - that the people who employ it view the events they are describing as unavoidable, that "nothing could have been done to prevent" them.

Which is of course pure rubbish, but at this point it's the first half-decent thing for these people to cling to and complain about - it's the first scrap of control they've managed to seize upon.

It doesn't matter that they have to stretch the meaning of the word to find something to complain about. It doesn't matter that the word's usage has no demonstrable negative effect on anything. It doesn't matter that the word getting changed would accomplish absolutely nothing of consequence. What matters is they feel like they finally can influence something - anything at all.

They can raise a stink and maybe get other people to do what they want. That alone is enough to motivate them; to allow them to ignore the logical holes in their argument; to treat anyone who doesn't completely agree with them as an enemy; to make them feel like they're accomplishing something important and meaningful, rather than something trivial and senseless.

Meanwhile, everyone else is going to keep saying "car accident" because it's a perfectly accurate and acceptable thing to say, and it is in no way mutually exclusive with finding fault or taking preventative measures.

Sadly, the logic of it all doesn't matter. Some people are simply dedicated to raise a stink, and no amount of reason will change their minds. All we can do is get on with our lives and ignore their nonsense.

It's ultimately a wasted effort anyway - if self righteous, indignant idiocy couldn't drive us to start saying "Freedom Fries" instead of "French Fries" even with the power of blind, zealous nationalism behind it, there's no real chance of this movement succeeding.

John said...
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