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."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:
"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."
"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.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.
@jakekthompson: Calling a crash an "accident" takes blame away from the cause, and removes incentive to fix the problem.
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.