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AAA wants us to stop calling car crashes “accidents”

Tuesday, Jan 26, 2021

* AAA…

AURORA, Ill., (January 26, 2021) – As we close out January, have a few New Year’s Resolutions already gone to the wayside? If you are looking for an easy-to-stick-to resolution that will make a difference, look no further than changing the way you talk about car crashes. Namely? Stop calling them “accidents.”

Here’s why: The language we use to think about and describe things affects the value judgments we make about acceptable behavior, and as a result, the way that we behave. When we call a crash, collision, or wreck an “accident,” we imply that these tragedies are inevitable, and that they’re beyond human influence or control. After all, “accidents” happen, don’t they?

When it comes to car crashes, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, according to comprehensive research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of all crashes are the result of driver error. That means that 36,000 of the 38,800 people who lost their lives on American roadways in 2019 could still be here today if drivers made different choices. Consider also the outcomes for the 4.4 million people injured seriously enough to require hospitalization – or the billions of dollars spent on auto insurance claims, incurred losses, medical bills, and litigation each year. All told, nearly 95 percent of it could have been avoided completely.

Crashes aren’t accidents, and they don’t have to be an inevitable, acceptable fact of life. For example, nobody “accidentally” texts and drives. They choose to look at their phone while behind the wheel. The crashes may not have happened intentionally, but the causal behavior did.

In 2020 the Illinois State Police reported:

    • 13,029 crashes were due to improper lane usage. This is when a driver has failed to properly stay within their lane or is weaving within their lane in an unsafe manner.
    • 7,538 crashes were due to speeding. Speeding can be deadly and increases crash severity, as crash energy increases with speed. People often drive faster than the speed and our AAA Foundation’s Traffic Safety Culture Index finds that a large proportion of drivers confess to exceeding posted speed limits.
    • 1,720 crashes were due to failing to yield. The purpose of right-of-way laws is to prevent conflicts resulting from one driver failing to yield and give right of way to another. All drivers are required to exercise due care to avoid a collision, and whoever has the last clear chance to avoid a collision has an obligation to do so.

This may seem pedantic, until you 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. Importantly, the study concludes, ridding our 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, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That potential is why NHTSA hasn’t used the word “accident” in its official communications since 1997, why Nevada lawmakers changed all statutory references from accident to crash in 2016, why the City of New York stopped using the “a-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.”

As we kick off the new year, Illinoisans hoping to take this important first step in preventing traffic violence can sign the pledge at CrashNotAccident.com.

“When a plane crashes, we don’t call it an ‘accident’ – in large part because we demand answers, and that it doesn’t happen again,” said Molly Hart, spokesperson for AAA – The Auto Club Group. “In 2021, let’s change our language to reflect the fact that car crashes aren’t something that just happen. They’re something we control. They’re a problem we can solve. Accidents happen, but most crashes don’t have to.”

Thoughts?

- Posted by Rich Miller        

43 Comments
  1. - Of Course. As Per the Movie Hot Fuzz - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:05 am:

    “What happened, Danny?” asks the driver.

    “Car accident. Nasty way to go,” says Danny.

    “Constable,” the second officer says, “official vocab guidelines state we no longer refer to these incidents as accidents, they’re now collisions.”

    “Right,” says Danny. The driver exits. A woman bicycling by stops to look.

    “What happened, Danny?” asks the bicyclist.

    “Traffic collision,” says Danny, turning to the second officer. “Hey, why can’t we say “accident” again?”

    “Because “accident” implies there’s nobody to blame.”


  2. - don the legend - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:10 am:

    AAA has a winning case.


  3. - Perrid - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:10 am:

    “ word “accident” tends to shift blame to the victims of car crashes”
    How in God’s name do you figure that? “Accident” absolves whoever caused the crash, sure, but how does it blame the victim?


  4. - Essential State Employee - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:15 am:

    I’ve heard local news stations for years in their newscasts refer to winter weather-related accidents (like those yesterday and today) as merely “fender benders.”


  5. - NIU Grad - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:15 am:

    Perrid - If someone runs a red light and slams into the side of my car, using “accident” implies that it may have been both of our faults. You better believe when someone asks me what happens, I’ll say “that person crashed into my car” and not “we both had an oopsie.”


  6. - Norseman - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:15 am:

    I heard this often from a former high ranking public health official.

    Public health responses requires buy-in by elected leadership. Sadly that is missing. Especially by Republicans who are seeking to limit public health interventions.


  7. - SAP - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:20 am:

    My high school driver’s ed teacher insisted on using the word “collision” and not using the word “accident” in his class. I have to say that it made an impression on me that has lasted over 30 years. Bravo to AAA.


  8. - Jocko - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:21 am:

    While I agree with the sentiment, I felt like…so long as there are no injuries…law enforcement sees the whole thing as a bother.

    Even more infuriating, the person running the light and catching the back corner of my car was an attractive female, leading to his ‘buying into’ her version of events.


  9. - NotSoCivilEngineer - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:22 am:

    This is backed up by some excellent behavioral research and has been pushed for a few years now. Pedestrians are not struck by cars. They are struck by cars driven by people. We will never make progress on reducing, let alone reducing to zero, vehicular fatalities. Public policy and technology will only get us so far. Divers (and other road users) have take responsibility and every little thing we can do to save lives makes a difference. This is completely free and has significant impacts not just on driver behavior, but on the policy decisions made in the safety realm. This is important for mainstream media, social media, and daily conversation.


  10. - Collinsville Kevin - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:25 am:

    A bit over the top.


  11. - Streator Curmudgeon - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:26 am:

    Is this a precursor to insurance companies refusing to pay claims for “accidents?”


  12. - JoanP - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:30 am:

    =“Because “accident” implies there’s nobody to blame.”=

    and sometimes that’s true.


  13. - NotSoCivilEngineer - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:34 am:

    That should read that we will not make progress without behavioral change.


  14. - Anon221 - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:37 am:

    This may be the study from December 2019 that was cited in the article. It’s fairly short and worth a read to put the overall message from AAA in more context. And, I agree with doing away with the term “accident” after spending part of my career in safety and health. It’s a term that can allow for an “it was out of my hands” thinking. There’s a country song, “Jesus Take the Wheel”, that really, really ticks me off. I know you don’t have to take the lyrics literally, but throwing your hands up off the steering wheel and hoping a higher power will save you and your young child in a snowstorm is beyond reckless. If we all “took the wheel” more when driving or in other activities, we would all be much, much safer out on the road of life. Sometimes you don’t always get that “second chance”.

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590198219300727


  15. - Leslie K - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:43 am:

    Words matter and I think it is a good campaign. But referring to at as “traffic violence” is both inappropriate and a bad strategy.

    Unless someone is deliberately trying to hit someone with a car, it is not “traffic violence.”
    And the term naturally associates with the term “police violence,” which is a charged, polarizing topic. Why unnecessarily muddy the traffic safety message in this way? Focus on “crash” instead of “accident” and make some headway.


  16. - Product of the '60's - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:48 am:

    Neither Roy Acuff nor Bruce called their songs “Accident” on the highway.


  17. - Six Degrees of Separation - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:51 am:

    Person sees crash victim laying in the ditch and asks “Have an accident”?
    Victim says “No thanks, just had one.”


  18. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:51 am:

    Merriam Webster definition of “accident”

    1 : an unfortunate event resulting from carelessness, unawareness, ignorance, or a combination of causes

    Seems to me, the use of the word accident to describe most motor vehicle collisions or ‘traffic violence,’ is still appropriate, at least according to Merriam.


  19. - Tommydanger - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:52 am:

    11:51 quoting Merriam is me


  20. - Candy Dogood - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 11:54 am:

    ===How in God’s name do you figure that? “Accident” absolves whoever caused the crash, sure, but how does it blame the victim?===

    Language is a funny thing. If a family member died because someone was operating a vehicle negligently or making bad decisions it probably isn’t accurate to describe it as an accident. If the posted regulation says the speed limit is 35 and a collision occurs because someone is going 45 describing it as an accident is inaccurate.

    Someone intentionally chose to operate their vehicle outside of regulatory guidelines.

    Changing the language used might even make it easier to communicate that things that cause distracted driving cause injury and death, not accidents.


  21. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 12:08 pm:

    They’re called accidents because they’re unintentional. Whether the result of human error or not. Sheesh.


  22. - Red Ketcher - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 12:11 pm:

    Skeptical question AAA’s motive

    Joan P ar 11:30 is on target

    =“Because “accident” implies there’s nobody to blame.”=

    and sometimes that’s true.


  23. - 47th Ward - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 12:11 pm:

    Accident assumes there was no intent. It doesn’t absolve anyone of fault. The opposite of accident is “on purpose.”

    I didn’t rear end you on purpose, it was an accident. Still my fault, but I want you to know it wasn’t personal.

    In j school they teach you not to assign blame in these cases, so when somebody plows their car into another, it gets written as two cars collided. Reporters don’t get to assign blame unless they have a source.


  24. - Anyone Remember - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 12:24 pm:

    Serious, non-snarky question. If a deer t-bones a vehicle / motorcycle, is that a collision? Crash? Accident? Remember, some of these involve fatality to humans.


  25. - thisjustinagain - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 12:28 pm:

    Accidents don’t just happen; they are caused by a series of events or omissions (known as a “chain of causation”) which result in the end product of any type of accident. This is Safety 101 stuff, but people not in the business will continue to call them by their colloquial names of “fender benders”, “traffic accidents”, etc. for decades to come. AAA has a good idea, but given the current driving environment (everyone is deaf, dumb, blind, and suicidal when behind the wheel is my rule), far more attention should be paid to getting people to slow down and pay attention at all times. FYI, Illinois officially calls an accident report a “Traffic Crash Report” per ILDOT.


  26. - Retired and still in Illinois - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 12:32 pm:

    Many in law enforcement used to refer to an unintentional discharge of a firearm as an accidental discharge. Most now use some form of “negligent” discharge. One term seems to absolve the conduct while the other does not.


  27. - Anon221 - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 12:46 pm:

    Anyone Remember- What other factors were there in that particular incident? Speeding, distracted by texting, unfamiliar with when and where deer are active on the route, visibility (nighttime, fog, vegetation)- to name a few. You can’t always be smarter than a deer, but by being more aware when driving, you just might be able to avoid a collision with deer if you see them first and adjust your actions to give them time to decide what they are going to do.


  28. - Benjamin - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 1:25 pm:

    This is surprising coming from AAA, since the people I’ve heard trying to change “accidents” to “crashes” are all alternative transportation (i.e., biking or walking) advocates, usually the bane of AAA’s existence.

    But this is good. We’ve gotten complacent about safety lately, particularly in regards to auto-pedestrian collisions. Maybe this will provide a subtle nudge.

    By the way, I’m wracking my brains for an example of an accident for which there is truly no one to blame. A speedy and suicidal deer, perhaps, but short of that, almost every kind of crash includes a human who could have done something better.


  29. - Huh? - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 1:26 pm:

    Using the term “crash” or “collision ” is a statement of fact.

    Using the term “accident” brings in speculation about the cause of the incident.


  30. - We've never had one before - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 1:38 pm:

    The IDOT signs call them “incidents”.

    That’s better than “crash”.

    When I was a teenager, I was instructed that the pro shop sold “safety helmets”, not “crash helmets”.


  31. - Dotnonymous - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 1:41 pm:

    “By the way, I’m wracking my brains for an example of an accident for which there is truly no one to blame.”

    Tom DeVore probably knows.


  32. - Annon3 - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 1:48 pm:

    Long overdue, language/words matter and to say that impaired drivers cause fatal “accidents” seems ridiculous to me.


  33. - anon2 - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 2:18 pm:

    === and sometimes that’s true (nobody’s to blame).==
    Sometimes both drivers contribute to the collision. It’s rare, however, when no driver error is involved.

    === They’re called accidents because they’re unintentional. ===

    When someone drinks to excess and then drives, that’s intentional. He knowingly raises his risk of a crash by several times. When someone speeds up when the light it changing and hits the intersection at high speed after the light is red, that’s also intentionally risking a dangerous t-bone crash. Reckless disregard for safety ought not to be described as an accident as in “nobody is to blame.”


  34. - anon2 - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 2:22 pm:

    Driving while heavily intoxicated is like shooting
    into a crowded mall. The shooter/driver doesn’t aim for anyone, and he could argue he didn’t intend to kill anyone. But his actions created the readily foreseeable risk of someone being shot or run over. He nonetheless fired the weapon or drove the vehicle in reckless disregard for others and in violation of the law. That’s no accident.


  35. - anon2 - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 2:28 pm:

    “It was just an accident.”
    “Accidents happen.”
    “I accidentally bumped into the rear of the car.”
    “It was bad luck.”

    Accident is a euphemism that guilty drivers prefer.


  36. - 47th Ward - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 2:43 pm:

    ===Reckless disregard for safety ought not to be described as an accident as in “nobody is to blame.”===

    Since you’re responding to me, I’ll simply point out that I never said that. You and AAA seem to be complaining that lay people are using lay terms to describe something more complex.

    You traffic safety eggheads can call it whatever you like, but the rest of know what it means when someone says they’ve been in an accident.


  37. - SomeGuy - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 3:03 pm:

    I agree with AAA on this. I have been consciously trying to refer to them as “motor vehicle collisions” when ever possible. This avoids the gray area between car/truck/bus/motorcycle while also getting away from the blame-absolving “accident”. For some reason calling it a crash seems like less than professional language. Might as well call it a bump, a bang, a crunch, etc. Maybe it’s just me but I think collision is more accurate and seems like a better fit.

    On an only mildly related note: The study shows that 94% of crashes are due to driver error.

    When people talk about self driving cars, why do we complain about ANY collision that occurs when the vehicle is under autonomous control? If autonomous driving can eliminate half of the collisions that were previously caused by driver error that would be a HUGE win. Unfortunately public perception is that any collision where a “robot” is driving is proof that autonomous cars are a terrible idea.


  38. - anon2 - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 3:25 pm:

    == the rest of us know what it means when someone says they’ve been in an accident ==

    What does it mean? Do you assume the person who says they’ve been in an accident caused the crash? Does it mean he was negligent or reckless? It seems to me that a guilty party is more likely to call a crash he caused an accident than his victim would. After all, they didn’t mean it to happen. Yet they intentionally drove in such an illegal and dangerous way that it caused or aggravated the crash.


  39. - 47th Ward - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 4:37 pm:

    Did you just get beamed here anon2?

    There is a common understanding of what a traffic accident entails and it doesn’t capture everything you think it should. Feel free to put on your insurance investigator hat and ask additional questions, like “what happened?” “Was anyone hurt?” “Did you call the police?”

    Because that’s how most humans discuss these things. I don’t assume anything when people tell me they’ve been in an accident. I lean on empathy and some basic questions to get a better understanding of what happened. You should try it sometime.

    Or you can continue to insist that the whole world adopt your preferred terminology, but I don’t think that’s practical.


  40. - Say What? - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 4:54 pm:

    IDOT and FHWA stop calling them accidents over 10 years ago. Any roadway study since that time uses crash data, crash analysis, crash rates, crash diagram, etc. HAL’s or High Accident Locations used to be the norm but are long gone from literature.


  41. - Bruce( no not him) - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 4:59 pm:

    I do so love it when we argue about semantics, like that will help fix anything.


  42. - MyTwoCents - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 5:28 pm:

    I think the change is language is a good idea. I’ve been in multiple collisions since I started driving & only 1 was a true accident. Hilly highway in November at night & a deer just past the crest of the hill. No way to see the deer until I was literally on top of it.


  43. - Keyrock - Tuesday, Jan 26, 21 @ 6:08 pm:

    My high school physics teacher taught that speed doesn’t kill; deceleration kills. He would have liked this change.


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