An "accident" is, by definition, unintentional. We accidentally drop dinner plates, or send e-mails before we're done writing them. The word also suggests something of the unforeseen — an event that couldn't have been anticipated, for which no one can be blamed.
That second connotation is what irks transportation advocates who want to change how we talk about traffic collisions. When one vehicle careens into another or rounds a corner into a pedestrian — call it a "crash," they say, not an "accident."
"Our children did not die in 'accidents,'" says Amy Cohen, a co-founder of the New York-based group Families for Safe Streets. Her 12-year-old son was hit and killed by a van on the street in front of their home in 2013. "An 'accident,'" she says, "implies that nothing could have been done to prevent their deaths."
Earlier this summer, her group and advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives launched a campaign soliciting pledges to stop using the word. Language, they believe, shapes policy. The word "accident," they say, presupposes a conclusion that no one bears responsibility.
And when the language we use to describe a problem suggests none of its violence or even the possibility of root causes, then, advocates argue, we're not likely to seriously invest in designing safer streets or enforcing traffic laws.
"If we stopped using that word, as individuals, as a city, in a national context, what questions do we have to start asking ourselves about these crashes?" says Caroline Samponaro, deputy director at Transportation Alternatives. How did they happen? Who was to blame? An erratic driver? A faulty vehicle? A perpetually dangerous intersection?
The brief text of the pledge campaign points to similarly violent scenarios where the word now seems unfit:
Before the labor movement, factory owners would say "it was an accident" when American workers were injured in unsafe conditions.
Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say "it was an accident" when they crashed their cars.
Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions.
Traffic is an outlier here, an environment where we still behave as if some level of carnage is unavoidable, explained away with the same logic we might use to describe bad weather. Hurricanes happen. Traffic accidents do, too.
"It's language that's been indoctrinated," Cohen says. "The New York Police Department report you get when your child is killed is called an 'accident report' because the New York state DMV won't change the language on the report because the New York state traffic and vehicular code still calls it an 'accident.'"
Katy Waldman, writing at Slate, has argued that the word "crash" has problematic connotations in the other direction, that it assigns guilt where "accident" presumes innocence. The word, though, while it conjures greater violence, doesn't necessarily ascribe fault. Samponaro counters that "crash" is in fact more neutral: Crashes can be accidental, but accidents can't be blamed.
"It doesn’t mean that there aren’t accidents," Samponaro says. You can get in a crash slipping on black ice and still not be at fault. "What the word means is that we shouldn't right away assume that there’s no one to blame."
It's not unreasonable to think that by changing language, these groups might ultimately change how we govern traffic and design roads. In many arenas, the assumptions baked into words become baked into policy, whether we're talking about what is "pro-life" or who constitutes a "welfare queen" or whether the mentally ill are "insane."