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Crash, Not Accident: Words Matter in Building Safer Highways (and Fairer Jury Pools)

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.


  1. John 2020-09-17

    Cory, thanks for posting and analyzing this. Vision Zero Network – the nomenclature – may also be a linguistic reach. We’ll never have a world of zero accidents. But we Americans, with our extended adolescence culture, we; 1) lazily abuse our language, and 2) waste excessive time shifting blame.

    Accidents are rare. CPT Sully Sullenberger, had an accident when a flock of geese entered his engine air intakes. Most American “accidents” are not accidental. Most incidents are crashes or the direct result of human failures. This is true in aviation, boating, ground, and vehicle crashes or collisions.

    One way to reduce the crashes and incidents is through law and insurance, If one is not wearing a seatbelt – then the insurance company “award” is commensurate “as if” one wore a seatbelt – costing the driver tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands. This personal responsibility is and has been the law in Germany for generations. Personal responsibility. Exceed the speed limit – insurance companies can reduce the award commensurate to if the speed limit were observed. Use the vehicle (aircraft, boat, vehicle) in the commission of a crime – then the state seizes it to sell it at auction – just like burglary tools. The insurance company does not have to cover the driver / owner if the behavior is egregious enough – BUI, DUI, etc. It’s long past the time for American culture to outgrow its extended adolescence.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-09-17

    Indeed, John, it is a reach to think bad things won’t happen… but then that’s also the point of VZN’s mindset shift. They acknowledge that people will make mistakes and behave stupidly. They acknowledge that we won’t eliminate bad behavior. (Once again, I find original sin a useful concept.) But their response is not to shrug and say boys will be boys, humans will be fallible, and death happens but to reject fatalism and say we should always maintain the mindset that we can engineer the crap out of our systems—infrastructural, technological, economic, judicial—to protect ourselves against those pernicious errors. Why accept needless death? Why witness an elected officer of the law driving so distracted that he can’t tell a man from a deer and respond, “Oh well, that’ll teach dummies like Joe not to dare using our highways without driving their own personal tanks.”

    In a way, we Americans have inkled toward the Vision Zero philosophy of engineering our way out of crashes, but in an incomplete and selfish way. We have largely abandoned small cars and instead decided to buy bigger and bigger personal armored vehicles, thinking that will keep us from getting hurt in crashes. But that approach infringes on universal mobility (a key liberty point for Vision Zero: roads are for everyone, using every mode of transport, including people power). We’ve also adopted that narrow-minded approach while taking other actions that increase our risks, like raising our speed limits.

  3. Fairburn 2020-09-18

    Yes, the words used do matter and can change how people see a problem.

    Often in news articles there is a line such as “the car swerved and left the road” as if the driver had nothing to do with it. Maybe in a future of self-driving cars this WILL be the car’s fault, but right now it’s the fault of the driver.

    If similar wording was used in other news stories we would read that “the gun pointed itself at the clerk” or “the computer belonging to the accountant skimmed money from the employer’s business.”

  4. leslie 2020-09-18

    A few years ago my two dear hippy friends (at the time, sadly not anymore) lost their extraordinary teen to a drag racing head-on high speed collision. They were driving back east river to a gramma’s birthday. Farm folks. Farm to farm stretches of asphalt out in the middle of nowhere. The racer was just a kid. Broad daylight. The two teen victims were merely driving separately to Gramma’s and Grampa’s home, not with Mom and Dad in the “adult” car.

    The victim I knew WAS extraordinary. Talented, personality beyond belief. But the depth of grief the rest of the family was left with was as deep and dark and cold as the deepest trench. They loved their child, their sibling so authentically, and I was privileged to witness this love so often, that there was no understanding it without experience of similar tragedy. I saw it coming tonight late in the grocery store. The virus is at 395 positive infections today yet groups of high school kids 3, 4, 5, 6 together in groups, loud, laughing, well enough to do, white, all unmasked, squeezing into checkout aisles with customers ahead of them, no social distance, running around; they don’t care about infecting others. They don’t care. Because Kristi is too—whatever—to rise to the occasion—a national emergency—to tell them to care. Our children. And the searing and lasting pain, and therapy, and anti depressants, and of course medicating the pain (unless lucky enough to understand addiction already) and the awkwardness, people pointing and whispering, and even the kindnesses, also extraordinary…you could do without “accidents” such as those caused by our Attorney General. And now the struggle, the evidence, the insurance companies. Two decades from now there may be some solace. The emptiness, loss of joy. I guess it has been that long.

  5. Jake 2020-09-18

    Yep, words-like lives-matter…..Words like Trump’s caught knowingly on tape matter, too….

  6. Debbo 2020-09-18

    This is an excellent point that had not occurred to me. Thanks for this important reframing information.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-09-19

    “The car left the road”—excellent example.

    If the car leaves the road, it’s likely (not 100%, but likely) because the driver took his hands off the wheel or was overdriving the conditions.

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