The Vision Zero Network says we accept tens of thousands of needless deaths in car crashes each year the same way Trumpists are accepting needless deaths from coronavirus. Vision Zero Network says that instead of downplaying deaths by car as inevitable, we could revolutionize our approach to focus on better design of cars, roads, and laws based on an ethical stance that highway deaths are unacceptable. Sweden is using the Vision Zero approach, and they’ve reduced their traffic death rate by more than half since 1997 (down from seven per 100,000 people to less than three per 100L; the U.S. rate is 11.6 per 100K).
As part of its campaign for highway safety, the Vision Zero Network has advocated replacing the word accident with crash in discussing “traffic violence”:
When her father was killed, even Emily Stein called it an accident. Five years ago, when she was six months pregnant, her father was struck and killed by a motorist who was driving distracted while programming a GPS. Though the cause of her father’s death was so tragically clear, even Stein defaulted to a word that implied the conscious act was somehow inevitable.
“The word accident was used after my dad was killed — by me, by the state police, and by the District Attorney who was representing my family,” she recalls. “Once, the DA did say ‘Well, it’s not really an accident, but you know what I mean.’ I thought about it for a second, but it didn’t register as something that we should change in our language.”
It wasn’t until she met Jeff Larason, a fellow Bostonian and the founder of the “Drop the A Word” campaign, that her thinking started to change.
“Words have meaning, and in the case of a crash that was 100% preventable, as my dad’s death was, accident is simply the wrong word,” she says. “It’s also hurtful to victims and their families. It both gives the impression of an ‘oops,’ and that ‘it can happen to anyone’ — and with that attitude, we tend to not take responsibility for the choices we make while driving. Now, I tend to correct people when they use the word, especially when it’s used to clearly describe a preventable, predictable crash” [“#CrashNotAccident: Words Matter in Saving Lives,” Vision Zero Network, 2016.02.11].
This traffic safety organization thus criticizes deadly Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg‘s (and his partisan, victim-blaming apologists’) use of the term “accident” as a perpetuation of our faulty acceptance of preventable traffic deaths… as well as an effort to bias the investigation and potential jury pool:
Reaction from street safety advocates was swift, with some condemning Ravnsborg for his callous depiction of the crash, which he called an “accident” in his official statement.
“Attorney General Ravnsborg’s use of the word ‘accident” in the case of this fatal crash he was involved in is inappropriate in several ways,” said Leah Shahum, director of the National Vision Zero Network. “First, given his position as the state’s highest-ranking legal officer, he should not be biasing the investigation or future legal findings. Second, it’s hurtful to the victim’s loved ones to be dismissing this as an ‘oops’ situation. And, finally, [it] feeds into the pervasive cultural myth that misrepresents the actual agency we have in preventing serious crashes —because we can, indeed, influence many factors, such as safe street lighting, speed limits, road design, ensuring sidewalks, and more.
“The Attorney General should understand that words matter,” she added [Kea Wilson, “Why the S.D. Attorney General Will Probably Get Away with Killing a Pedestrian,” Streets Blog USA, 2020.09.15].
Jason Ravnsborg isn’t just excusing his own deadly action. He’s part of a system that takes life too lightly and accepts preventable death too easily. We can do better, in word and in action.