New Year’s Resolution: ‘Crash not Accident’

by Gwen Newell

Save lives by changing how you talk about tragedies

Are you in the market for a New Year’s resolution that’s not only easy to uphold, but one that will also make a difference? Then look no further than changing the way you talk about car crashes. Namely? Stop referring to them as ‘accidents.’

Here’s why – the language we use to think about and describe things inadvertently affects the value judgements that we make about acceptable behavior, and as a result, the way that we behave. When we call a crash, collision, or wreck an ‘accident,’ it is implied that these tragedies are inevitable and that they are beyond human influence or control. After all, ‘accidents’ happen, don’t they?

Car crashes are not accidents and they don’t have to be an inevitable, acceptable fact of life. Yet, this may seem obscure until you take a look at the data. According to research published in the December 2019 issue of Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, use of the word ‘accident’ tends to shift blame to the victims of car crashes and prevents people from thinking about these deaths and injuries in the context of a preventable public health challenge.

Notably, the study concludes, ridding your lexicon of the word ‘accident’ has the potential to save human lives and prevent injury on a large scale. That’s significant, given that road traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for people aged between 1 and 54, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This conclusion is why NHTSA hasn’t used the word ‘accident’ in any of its official communications since 1997, why Nevada lawmakers changed all statutory references from accident to crash in 2016, why New York stopped using the word in 2014, and why the Associated Press Stylebook urges journalists to avoid ‘accident’ which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible.

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