Calling crashes “accidents,” even when they aren’t


“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.

Photo by Brittany Randolph via Flickr.

This entry was posted in Crime, Transportation on by .

About John Bennett

Transportation, land use, local farming and green building are all potential topics for Sustainable Savannah. The goal is to aggregate content about local events and projects, so there will be a central place to review everything that’s happening. The site is aimed at encouraging collaboration and information sharing between groups and individuals currently engaged in sustainability efforts. The site can also provide a snapshot of Savannah for green-minded people who are considering visiting or moving to the area.

6 thoughts on “Calling crashes “accidents,” even when they aren’t

  1. Chris

    Interesting. My father, when teaching us to drive so many years ago, used to say that in every “accident” both drivers were responsible. I used to envision cases where that couldn’t be true, but I suspect he said so to convince us we were always responsible for our own driving.

  2. David Galvan

    The physician who claimed “Accident describes an event that could not have been prevented” is simply wrong. No definition of “accident” I have seen implies that the event could not have been prevented.

    Here is the defintion of “accident” from the Meriam-Webster dictionary:

    1 a: an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance b: lack of intention or necessity : chance
    2 a: an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance b: an unexpected and medically important bodily event especially when injurious

    I’ve checked all the major online dictionaries. Feel free to post a definition of accident that implies it refers to something that was not preventable. I haven’t found one.

    As such, the whole idea of this and the other linked blog, that calling something an accident dismisses the possibility that the event was preventable, is simply wrong.

    The use of the term accident is completely appropriate in describing most car crashes, even if they resulted in negligence on the part of the driver. The issue is intent.

    If the driver (OR CYCLIST) struck and killed a pedestrian while behaving extremely recklessly, they can be charged with manslaughter, or driving (or biking) while under the influence. Criminal charges are handed out on a case-by-case basis depending on the investigation of each incident. But, last time I checked, in this country people are innocent until proven guilty. So until criminal charges are brought up, the term “accident” is appropriate. That said, I have no problem with saying “crash” instead of accident to refer to vehicle-related incidents, but my point is that it is wrong to assume that the fact that something is preventable means it is not an accident. This is a red herring semantics argument.

    I will always support cyclist rights, and I often use my bike in my multi-modal commute (which includes bikes and buses and yes, sometimes cars). But if you’re going to heap all the blame on the behavior of the motorist, carefully separating the person from the vehicle, you should then be equally careful to separate the person from the vehicle in the case of cyclists. A motorist who hits a cyclist after the cyclist quickly darts out to the left, in front of the traveling car, because the cyclist is weaving close to the curb when there are no parked cars, and then sharply out into the lane when encountering a parked car, is not at fault for the cyclists reckless behavior simply because he is driving a car.

  3. onshay

    I had the same response as you, David. As you sufficiently described, “accident” refers to intent, not fault. Unfortunately, a few articles floating around out there attack semantics and the “branding” of, well, accidents rather than focusing a critical eye on more relevant or productive issues.

    That all being said, I have had many a conversation with my wife regarding the sociology and psychology of motorists. Many of us tend to feel a personal disconnect from our fellow citizens while driving and courtesy shown outside the compartment of a car seems to be vastly different than that shown “in person.” Therefore, I feel that semantics and branding used to describe motorist accidents is reflective of the symptom of this phenomenon rather than it’s cause.

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