“Accidents Will Happen” is the first song off Elvis Costello’s 1979 LP “Armed Forces.” It’s also the attitude many journalists and law enforcement officers seem to take in regard to car vs. pedestrian or car vs. cyclist crashes. I first heard an objection to the word “accident” in describing these types of incidents several years ago. An epidemiologist was giving a summary of data on local crash car vs. pedestrian crashes. She used the word “accident” repeatedly until a physician stood up and objected. “Accident,” he said, “describes an event that could not have been prevented.”
His point: Many of the crashes described may have been an unintentional, but to call them “accidental” ignores their identifiable causes and dismisses the fact they they were preventable. After all, if a motorist crashes into something or someone while speeding, driving under the influence, driving recklessly or aggressively, while sending a text message, or in the midst adjusting the picture on the monitor of a dash-mounted car theater system, is it really an accident? When drivers engage in these behaviors in pedestrian- and cyclist-rich environments, the needle tips from predictable into the realm of the probable.
In his excellent blog, “How We Drive,” Tom Vanderbilt describes the tendency to assign “accident” to events that really aren’t as “our cultural downgrading of personal responsibility when it comes to negligent driving.” Read the full post here, which references another excellent blog. Vanderbilt tries to understand why the term accident is so freely used even in cases in which it is clearly inaccurate:
I am frankly not sure why we are so afraid to assign responsibility in car crashes. Is it that we view traffic violations in general as “folk crimes,” not quite “real” crimes? Is it the “there for the grace of God” argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of “a car that strikes a pedestrian”? I sometimes hear the argument made, ‘well that driver will suffer the rest of his life for what he did’; maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s not provable, not quantifiable.
Vanderbilt may be on to something, if comments on Savannah Morning News coverage of pedestrian deaths and injuries are any indicator. As dependable as morning delivery of the paper (at least for now), any news item describing a car vs. pedestrian “accident” will be greeted by comments from readers sympathizing with with driver and vilifying the pedestrian—no matter who is at fault. Many fret over the cost of the car’s bodywork.
This is indicative of a kind of thinking that imagines cars as being autonomous from the people who drive them. I’m guilty of this as well. When I was struck while riding my bicycle several years ago, I described it as being “hit by a car,” not “hit by a person driving a car.” And I’ve done it again in this post. Every reference to car vs. pedestrian or car vs. cyclist above should really read “motorist vs. …”
Clearly not every “accident” is the motorist’s fault. Pedestrians and cyclists sometimes engage in behaviors that elevate their chances of being hit, especially if they are in the presence of motorists who are equally reckless. Still, to call it a draw diminishes the fact that the person outside the car is almost certain to come out the loser in the event of a crash. To my way of thinking, the person in control of a machine easily capable of causing death or injury is obligated to exercise a commensurate level of care while operating it.