By on May 23, 2016

Car collision (Mark Turnauckas/Flickr)

Human error causes most vehicle wrecks, so why is “car accident” still the go-to term?

A safety advocate-led movement is gaining steam to change the lexicon, the New York Times reports, with “crash” being the preferred word to replace “accident.”

With fatal crashes on the rise on U.S. roads, policymakers are joining the groundswell of voices calling for eradication of the word, which they say absolves blame.

“When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,'” said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind in a recent speech. “In our society, language can be everything.”

The state of Nevada, as well as New York City, San Francisco and other cities, have already passed laws to erase the word from police and insurance documents. Transportation departments in 28 states also avoid the word.

As of April, Associated Press news reports will use “crash” whenever driver negligence is proven or suggested.

While texting and rear-ending isn’t an act of God, roughly six percent of vehicle incidents can’t be attributed to driver error. A debris-caused tire blowout, storm-tossed tree limb, bolting deer or mechanical breakdown aren’t a driver’s fault any more than a bird strike is a pilot’s fault.

Still, it doesn’t look like advocates want to make a distinction. The word “crash” doesn’t assign blame, but “accident” removes all doubt as to driver fault. Expect the new blanket term to slowly replace the other.

Still, there’s pushback to the movement. The New York Times report points to a debate that raged on a Facebook group for traffic reporters.

“What is being solved by having this debate?” one post read. “What injustice are we correcting?”

[Image: Mark Turnauckas/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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86 Comments on “Replace the Word ‘Accident’ With ‘Crash,’ Advocates Demand...”


  • avatar
    RedRocket

    Dumb. Few people intentionally crash their vehicle, hence the use of “accident”. This strikes me as more of the type of thinking we see from the cyclist lobbyists who are fiercely anti-car and anti-driving.

    • 0 avatar

      “The state of Nevada, as well as New York City, San Francisco and other cities, have already passed laws to erase the word from police and insurance documents”

      There is the reason right there.

      Using the word ‘accident’ in documents that lawyers and insurance companies will use in court cases is the potential issue. Language is everything when it comes to the law.

    • 0 avatar
      DukeGanote

      How many people perform suicide by motor vehicle is one of the deeper mysteries. See the recent case of the late Aubrey McClendon, energy executive.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      No, it’s not. Actions (or the lack thereof) have consequences. Riding motorcycles and flying airplanes has reinforced in me the absolute truth that, except for a few specific circumstances, any so-called accident can, at least partially, be blamed on ones own actions.

      I find it a bit surprising that the primarily libertarian-leaning crowd here seems to be opposed to, what I would think, is an affirmation of the personal responsibility that is, supposedly, at the core of the philosophy.

      • 0 avatar
        an innocent man

        >primarily libertarian-leaning crowd…<

        I do not think that word means what you think it means.

        • 0 avatar
          bunkie

          And I think your sarcasm detector needs a bit of adjustment.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            Sarcasm is another word you should look up in the dictionary.

          • 0 avatar

            I have a friend that maintains that using the dictionary to define a word is an exercise in futility. He maintains that a word never means what it is defined as meaning in any dictionary. A word’s meaning is solely defined by the context of it’s usage. I don’t completely buy into his contention, but in some cases I think he makes a valid point.

    • 0 avatar
      ahnuconun

      We put into place as many mechanisms as possible to counter the increasing responsibility-shirking that is plaguing our society. Changing terminology is merely one way but key to they way people think about things.

      The idea that a collision or crash was an “accident” has the connotations that it was “freak”, or somehow happened randomly, or that it happened in spite of all care being taken. So the lesson the truly negligent party should have learned about why the rules of the road exist and why they should care while operating a motor vehicle never get learned. Instead no time is lost in finding fault everywhere else. Multiply this by millions of people over the last 30 years and bad behaviour continues unabated, people increasingly live in a make-believe world, and laws become trivialized.

      When I hear news headlines about some serious collision where a driver “lost control of their vehicle” leading to the incident. How does one simply lose control of their vehicle? Did it magically decide to defy the driver’s commands and careen into another vehicle? No! Tell it like it is: the driver FAILED to properly execute a lane change and as a result collided with another vehicle.

      This notion needs to be extended to other areas as well. For example, the term “All-Season” Tires needs to be expunged from tire industry marketing terminology because it leads people in areas that receive ice/snow or freezing temperatures to believe “All Season” Tires are adequate, and to even go as far as thinking “Winter Tires” are unnecessary.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    Danny Butterman: Hey, why can’t we say “accident,” again?
    Nicholas Angel: Because “accident” implies there’s nobody to blame.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “What is being solved by having this debate?” one post read. “What injustice are we correcting?”

    There were some bored white people, and this is what happens when white people get bored. Stupid causes like this.

    After we return to British English and say “crash,” perhaps we can search for another term, even fund a study to find the best one.

    Wreck
    Bang-up
    Collision
    Wham-bam
    Cars went pow

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      not at all. simply writing them off as “accidents” gives the impression that people believe there’s simply nothing which can be done to prevent them.

      honestly I’m OK with this. When cars collide, it’s nearly always because someone did something stupid. They may not have intended to hit another car, but that doesn’t make it “accidental.” If you were too busy staring at your phone to notice you’re moving into an occupied lane, it wasn’t an “accident,” it was *your fault.* If you T-bone a car because in your hurry you ran a red light, it wasn’t an “accident,” it was *your fault.*

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        I argue that whether someone checks the box on the police form that says “Accident” or you replace that box with “Crash,” the result is the same.

        It’s just a word you use to describe when two cars hit one another. This “deeper meaning” crap is ludicrous. It’s an expression. Still didn’t hit someone on purpose, even if you were driving like an idiot.

        If I fool around with a knife (and I’m not a trained chef) and drop it, and cut off my toe, that’s not an “accident” because I was being stupid?

        • 0 avatar
          JimZ

          I’m talking more about public perception. 40,000 of us die on the road every year from (preventable) crashes, but we just accept it as the “way things are.”

          • 0 avatar
            Fordson

            I look at it this way – the degree to which a mishap is foreseeable is inversely proportionate to its being an accident.

            And it’s not just language – the one collision I had that was my fault…every time I said “hey – I screwed up” – to the other driver, the cops, people I told about it later, etc. – they all said “that’s why they call them ‘accidents.\'”

            No, I screwed up.

            It’s a mindset that people adopt. A Get Out Of Jail Free card that they get to play, and to make it all egalitarian, they will play it for YOU, too, even if you don’t want them to.

          • 0 avatar
            DukeGanote

            Like calling employees “associates”; did it really changed anything?

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            As an Associate of The Company, I feel more part of a whole, and work harder because work sets you free.

          • 0 avatar
            Rick T.

            I’ve found being a “guest” instead of a “customer” has not greatly improved my shopping experiences.

        • 0 avatar
          raph

          Indeed, in VA if your involved in an “accident” your going to get a ticket (reckless driving, improper driving, et al) whatever fits the situation (failure to yield to a tornado – okay they don’t that one yet but there are myriad laws enough to cover most situations) and the onus is on the driver if they decided not to pay for the ticket or its an offense requiring the driver to show up in court. Also I think VA is still a 60/40 state so when the tickets start piling on the driver with the most offenses takes the wrap when two or more parties are involved.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          “Accident” is an indirect admission that there is no one to blame in a crash/collision.
          Negligence or human error can be assessed and blame can be placed.

          Crash just denotes a collision or impact.

        • 0 avatar
          Jimal

          The problem is, “I didn’t mean to” is a defense for stupid or irresponsible behavior that gets used all the time. If you’re into personal responsibility, you should be into this change. Human error is not an accident.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            I’m into personal accountability and not being a trivial waste of space. People who care about this are a bigger blight on mankind than the car accident death toll.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            What I’m into is people not causing a fuss over a single word, generally. Much better things to spend time and money on which may actually make a difference.

            Apply this energy toward fixing our educational system, perhaps.

          • 0 avatar
            DukeGanote

            Important things like distinguishing speeding tickets and “speeding” crashes. Tickets are typically on dry straight interstates; crashes on back road rainy curves– often occurring at less than the posted speed limit. That’s why, as the Federal Highway Administration says, the speeding fatality rate is three times higher on local roads than interstates.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      “What is being solved by having this debate?” If that is the standard by which all our comments are judged, we can all go home. Perhaps we should.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      “this is what happens when white people get bored”

      Around here it’s usually a drone crashing into your 2nd story window while a fat white guy with no shirt in October shuffles down the street holding the RC.

      I’ll trade you white people.

    • 0 avatar

      I vote for “cars went pow”. :)

  • avatar
    Drzhivago138

    “Human error causes most vehicle wrecks, so why is “car accident” still the go-to term?”

    All accidents (automotive or otherwise) are caused. “Accident” refers to the intentions, not how it happened.

    Also, fatal crashes may be on the rise, but what about crashes as a whole? Are they going up or down?

  • avatar
    VoGo

    B&B opposes change. Details at 11.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      Honestly, I would have expected the B&B to grudgingly accept this (small) distinction. It’s analogous to “it’s not society’s fault that you robbed a gas station, it’s your own fault.”

      I guess that’s where the B&B draw the line. They rightfully don’t see themselves in one situation, but do see themselves in the other. Gut reactions tell them to spread the blame around, just in case.

  • avatar

    They have been called “collisions” in the UK for some time now.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Research studies already use this terminology. It’s a matter of accuracy, not advocacy.

  • avatar
    its me Dave

    A crash that happened while a driver was texting maybe shouldn’t be called an accident.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      As long as they didn’t intend to crash, it’s still an accident. “Accident” means it was unintentional, not that it had no cause. Now, someone commiting suicide by car crash is definitely not an accident.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        no, it was negligent, not accidental.

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          Why can’t it be both? An accident that was caused by negligence? In my first year of driving, I decapitated the neighbor’s mailbox and backed into a Lindsay wagon. Both were caused by negligence, but both were unintentional, thus, accidental.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Somebody needs a backup camera! Course your first year of driving was what, 08, so they would have been pretty rare then.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            2007, officially. Unofficially, I drove the ’98 F-250 (the same one I’d later back into the wagon) 2 miles from one farm to another when I was 12, and scared out of my mind.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Haha, you were alone at age 12? And was that a “I can reach the keys” moment or a “Dad’s gonna learn you somethin” moment?

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            Dad said, “Hey, follow me [Dad was on the 3020, top speed 19 MPH] with the pickup from Ally’s 80 to Deerhaven. There’s the gas, there’s the brake.” No turning necessary, though we did have to cross a paved county road (oh, horrors!) once.

            My “I can reach the keys” moment was when 3-year-old me released the parking brake on the idling ’74 F-250 and it rolled forward at a snail’s pace. That was scary.

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            A crash while texting isn’t accidental. Texting while driving is a deliberate act of which most people know it is unsafe. Negligence tends to be defined as what would a reasonable and prudent person do in the same situation.
            Carelessness can be viewed as an act omission or commission.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        100% of crashes are crashes.

        The percentage of crashes that is accidental is something less than 100%.

        “Crash” is simply more accurate. It’s the terminology that is already used by researchers. This is one of those cases when laypeople and experts use language differently in such a way that the laypeople end up being confused.

      • 0 avatar
        Jimal

        Human error is not an accident. I think that is the point of this whole exercise.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Language as a Means of Social Control

    http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED093168.pdf

    • 0 avatar
      DukeGanote

      Notice the self-serving obfuscation of “safety advocates” when they
      1) Loudly lament “highway” deaths (where highway implies “public roads”), but insist on Soviet-style enforcement on freeways– which are the fastest, safest, and most fuel-efficient roads. In popular terminology, freeways are commonly meant when talking about highways, but only account for a small fraction of traffic fatalities.
      2) Bemoan “speeding crashes”. But speeding crashes are about adverse conditions, such as rollovers-on-ramps, spinout-when-slick, and the like. Nothing to do with 80-mph on dry, open stretches of freeway– which is where most speeding TICKETS are issued.

  • avatar
    05lgt

    “While texting and rear ending isn’t an act of God,” That’s not what she said! Hey OH!

    One vote for “Bang Up”.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    Smash? Incident? Mishap? Shunt? Off?

    I will say that ‘accident’ is a rather bizarre mispropriation of the word, if you look at it objectively. It’s like how trash cans say “thank you” instead of “trash” – the word is one level removed from the thing described. If you get pissed off and drive hell bent for leather into the back of another car, you still had an accident. Shouldn’t it be an intentional?

    In the end, ‘Accident’ is a euphemism, and if for no other reason it seems that people who oppose the Big Bad Political Correctness would support its excision from official vocabulary.

  • avatar

    Things can get confusing. It’s like my grandfather asked “how come the light goes on every time I take a pee”, we had to explain he was peeing in the refrigerator.

  • avatar
    rcx141

    Here’s an occasion where the UK is well ahead of the US: PC messing about with what you call things.

    The police there now have to refer to “Road Traffic Collisions” (RTCs) instead of “Road Traffic Accidents” (RTAs)

    When a police car was involved, it was called a “Police Accident” (POLACC). No surprises they had to rename that as well!

  • avatar
    April S

    The term “accident” always seemed inaccurate to me. Depending on the situation (single or multiple vehicles) crash or collision would work better.

    P.S. it also peeves me when people refer to a internal combustion power source as “motor” instead of engine.

  • avatar

    Hey, I know where this nonsense comes from.

    The NY Times Editorial Board is totally in sync with the Transportation Alternatives “anti car” agenda. If you want to roll your eyes, check their website.

    Part of that agenda is that every time a bicyclist has an incident with a car, they call it a crash. You must also understand that EVERY contact between a car and pedestrian/bicycle is the car’s fault. This is why they wanted a 20 mph speed limit for all of NYC, (they got 25) want traffic cams at every corner to enforce it, (Albany won’t give it to them, fortunately) and any street than can ban cars, do it. I’ve seen NYC streets re striped for mostly unused bike lane, destroying flow and parking. This is intentional. Let me repeat. The pedestrian/bicycle is NEVER at fault. Cars are bad and need to be punished, by toll, congestion price, parking removal, or street re striping. Feel free to cross the street while playing Angry Birds….or ride your bike in total ignorance of any traffic laws. It is fun to watch this group get indignant when NYPD enforces traffic laws against them (fines only, but they go to the same marsupial-traffic-court in NYC motorists get)

    When DeBlasio was elected, one of the first things they did was re time all the traffic lights for 25 mph. Prior, they were set up for maximum throughput of cars….silly, silly DOT !!!

    This group caused an issue with the bus driver’s union. Due to the extreme exposure of the bus drivers, they get into an accident every few weeks. The TA bicycle guys demand an ARREST every time a bicycle/ped is hit, reality or actual negligence notwithstanding. Bus Drivers, who were all sober and usually NOT at fault, were getting arrested and processed, so the Union went nuts (properly).

    I find it interesting that a lot of the news stories are now about traffic “collisions” in the TV news, and like as not, “the driver left the scene…please contact NYPD if you have any information”. I wonder if there is a cause/effect, but to be honest, I’ve seen a bunch of fender benders in NYC where each car immediately flees. Funny when you see it.

    The anti car agenda this all derives from is a bit nutty and only works in the center of NYC and a few gentrified areas in the Boros, but the ideas will sometimes propagate out. This is one of those times.

    In terms of civil liability, this is meaningless.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      “In terms of civil liability, this is meaningless.”

      No, it’s not. But feel free to believe that should you ever find yourself in court are facing an attorney who does know the meaning.

    • 0 avatar
      SunnyvaleCA

      I feel your pain Speedlaw! But I think your problem is with DeBlasio, not with proper verses mis-use of the English language. I’d rather see accurate language (see post below). In fact, these crashes being labeled “accidents” give the bicyclist the high road, since they suffer most of the physical damage. If someone rides a bicycle on public streets that has no brakes whatsoever, that’s a conscious decision and so certainly isn’t causing “accidents.”

    • 0 avatar
      RedRocket

      Totally agree. It is the agenda of the anti-car cycling lobby lunatics.

  • avatar
    brettc

    I like the term collision myself and use it when I see vehicles that had an unrequested meeting with something. Police use it since they call it an MVC, so it’s good enough for me.

    An accident is when you trust a fart. A collision is two objects running into each other that shouldn’t.

  • avatar
    Big Al From 'Murica

    Well whic God are we giving the glory for the accident…Jehova, Allah, Jesus, or Cthulhu? Whatever the case I am filing this article safely in my “who gives a $h!t file right along with any responses from BIgTrucks and Big Al from Oz.

  • avatar
    doublechili

    If we’re not using “accident” and it’s available for something else, can we use it to describe the situation where drivers reach their destination without crashing?

  • avatar
    doublechili

    BTW, in anticipation of the driver-less Pod future, they should call them “unfortunate incidents”, or maybe better yet “Algo-wrongs”.

  • avatar
    fishiftstick

    I’m happy to take driving advice from safety authorities. For advice on words, I’ll stick to a dictionary. Webster’s, for example, defines “accident” this way:

    Simple definition:
    “1. a sudden event (such as a crash) that is not planned or intended and that causes damage or injury” [parentheses in original].”

    Full definition:
    “1a : an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance b: lack of intention or necessity: chance ”

    “2a : an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance”

    Webster’s simple definition uses a crash as its primary example. The full definition requires only lack of intention, and explicitly includes the results of negligence.

    “Accident” is not a euphemism. It does not preclude fault, error, or negligence. It is more accurate and informative than “crash”, which does not exclude deliberate ramming or road rage.

    Yes, the public should be taught that many accidents are avoidable. But the way to do that is by teaching the public that many accidents are avoidable, not by playing semantic games.

    The less likely result of this policy is that it succeeds, and everyone starts calling it a “crash.” And in a decade or so, the current car-related definition of “accident” is forwarded to “crash.”

    The more likely result? Yet another euphemism used by experts and ignored by everyone else.

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      Dictionaries catalog the usage of language, they do not shape it.

      • 0 avatar
        fishiftstick

        Fine. If you prefer, the catalogued usage of the word “accident” includes negligence.

        But your point is not entirely true. Sure, language naturally evolves, and dictionaries change to match changing usage. But we need agreed-upon meanings for words, or language is impossible.

        Moreover, we are not talking here about how language naturally evolves. We are talking about a deliberate attempt to change it.

        Dictionaries can’t change usage, but car safety experts can?

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    Using “accident” instead of “collision” conflates action and result. At best, it is a euphemism used to deflect blame.

    When two cars hit each other at in intersection, the broken glass, plastic, and crumpled metal strewn about indicate a “collision.” However, you can debate if that collision was caused by “accidentially” running a stop sign, negligently “not paying attention to the stop signs,” excessive speed in snow/ice, etc. In any case, even if an “accident” causes a collision, the result is still a collision. Why not just call a collision a collision?

    Further, I would say that many “accidents” on the road don’t result in collisions at all, as in: I accidentally missed my turn and had to take the next exit.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    I completely disagree with how they’re using the word “accident” – I think it actually implies fault.

    “I accidentally hurt myself while doing something stupid,” sounds like a proper sentence, doesn’t it? There’s fault there, just not intent.

    “I was accidentally killed by a meteorite,” does not sound right at all, not only just because I wouldn’t be able to speak after that. “Accident” just doesn’t go with faultless incidents.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    At GM, at least by the year 2000 or so, the safety motto was “all accidents can be prevented” and vehicle impacts typically termed collisions or crashes.

    But I prefer the Darrell Waltrip terminology…they got to wreckin’

  • avatar
    fishiftstick

    You seem to have two complaints:

    1. “Accident” doesn’t say “negligence.”
    2. “Accident” doesn’t tell you what happened; it might mean “missed turn”.

    1. The meaning of “accident” includes negligence, so that’s not true. But at a minimum, “accident” means “something not intended.” Aside from rare cases of mechanical malfunction, cars do as directed, so the fact that you had an accident pretty squarely implies that something in someone’s driving was faulty. If anything, the euphemism for the polemic purposes of the safety gurus is “collision,” which avoids the question of responsibility altogether.

    2. Really? If you’re shopping for car insurance, and they ask you how many accidents you’ve had in the past 6 years, would you report the number of missed turns?

    Actually, I don’t care what you call it. I do however think that those who suggest changes in language should first acquaint themselves with its present meaning, something this article’s safety gurus have failed to do. I also oppose Newspeak, i.e. the manipulation of language for polemic reasons, which is the proposal of said experts.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Sideswiping a parked car is not a crash. Backing into someone’s “bumper” at 1.5 MPH ($3,200 minimum damage, usually) is not a crash. Clipping a pedestrian crossing the street in the middle of the block while trying to drive them back to the safety of the sidewalk is not a crash. Knocking over a traffic signal pole while turning the corner a wee bit too sharply is not a crash. The desire to use that word seems to involve raising the perceived danger level and consequences of many small driver miscalculations. I blame the lawyers, trying to drum up business.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Semantics aren’t going to change anything. If we want collisions to matter to people, then at-fault collisions should affect a person’s ability to drive.

    I’m not saying that people should be taken off the road for causing minor auto body damage. The consequences should be proportional to the amount of harm and damage inflicted.

  • avatar
    furiouschads

    In Italy, they are in-chee-den-tee. They view them as caused by a decision.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    GREAT comments ! I always like a chuckle .
    .
    about thirty years ago this came up and that time the word was ‘ Collision ‘ .
    .
    I doubt this will take but it’ll be entertaining .
    .
    -Nate

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