Use “Crashes,” Not “Accidents,” Road Safety Proponents Urge Public

Road safety proponents are calling for a change in terminology to describe traffic incidents from “accidents” to “crashes.” These advocates include federal authorities, state and local officials and the citizenry.

The word accident, according to them, diminishes the significance of the No. 1 cause of road incidents, which is human error. It’s a mindset that has pervaded society for more than 100 years, and one which advocates believe should now be changed.

In 2014, New York City’s Vision Zero policy includes the statement that NYC “must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere accidents;” San Francisco has followed suit. Massachusetts Director of Highway Safety Jeff Larason says about 28 state departments of transportation have avoided using the word accident to describe a road incident.

Mr. Larason is at the forefront of the campaign to use the term crash instead of accident and is urging media outlets to support his campaign by doing the same. Formerly a TV traffic reporter, Larason created the “Drop the A Word” blog to spread his advocacy and asked for support in persuading The Associated Press to explain to reporters how to use the word accident.

The AP issued its new policy in April, advising reporters to avoid using accident when a crash has been claimed or verified to be caused by negligence, because it can be interpreted as absolving the responsible person of his crime. Mark Rosekind, head of the NHTSA, agrees that using the word accident can be misleading. “It’s like God made it happen,” he says. Merriam-Webster defines accident as “an event that is not planned or intended; an event that occurs by chance.”

However, Mr. Larason has his critics, too. In a Facebook group frequented by traffic reporters, one comment said, “What is being solved by this debate? What injustice are we correcting?” Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation, when asked by Mr. Larason to use crash in lieu of accident, declined, explaining that it could only confuse the people concerned.

Safety advocates are not giving up. Majority of crashes are caused by drunk driving, distracted driving and other dangerous behaviors; only six percent are due to mechanical problems or weather. Mr. Rosekind says that the mentality of people viewing crashes as an unavoidable circumstance must be changed, and changing the language by which traffic incidents are described is part of it.