A new crash program on safety

Activists are reframing the terms of public debate by refusing to call road deaths ‘accidents’ – and they’ve gotten the attention of The Associated Press.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters
A car passes by outside the Arango Orillac Building at which the Mossack Fonseca law firm office is located in Panama City.

Accidents happen, the saying goes. Etymologically, that’s what accident means.

It comes from a Latin verb, accidere, meaning “to happen,” or “to fall out,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary; compare befall

The meaning of accident evolved to this sense, from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Something that happens by chance or without expectation; an event that is without apparent or deliberate cause.”

Farther down the page, we find Definition 8c: “An unfortunate and unforeseen event involving damage or injury; spec. a collision or similar incident in which at least one of the parties involved is a vehicle.”

Today, such “incidents” are a leading cause of death in the United States and other places, especially among young people. Clearly, new safety technologies and better public policies have reduced the rate of auto-related fatalities – in the US, down to 1.13 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2009, according to US government figures, as cited in Car and Driver magazine

But that’s still some 30,000 fatalities a year. If the asphalt realm were seen as a theater of war, its casualties would be comparable to those of other conflicts – the 58,000 US deaths in Vietnam over 20 years, or 33,000 in Korea (1950-53). 

And so several American cities, including Washington, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, have adopted some form of “Vision Zero,” an approach to traffic safety that originated in Sweden in the 1990s. The goal is zero traffic deaths, period. The emphasis is on better road design and lower speed limits. Since Sweden adopted Vision Zero, its traffic fatalities have dropped by half, to about a quarter of the US rate, according to Fortune magazine

Against this backdrop, safety advocates in the US have argued that accident is the wrong word for fatal road encounters. Try crash or collision instead, they advise.

Now they have gotten the ear of The Associated Press. Its stylebook directly guides or at least influences countless publications around the US, including the Monitor. 

And so it was big news when the AP tweeted out new guidance from last month’s American Copy Editors Society meeting: “When negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read as exonerating the person responsible.” 

Among those cheering was activist Amy Cohen, who was quoted as saying, “For far too long, news outlets have reflexively used the word ‘accident,’ essentially throwing up their hands and saying traffic deaths are inevitable, something no one is responsible for, like bad weather. With this Stylebook guideline, the AP is sending an important message that crashes are preventable, that we can fix dangerous streets, and we can deter careless, negligent and reckless driving.” 

When people speak of “reframing the terms of public debate,” this is the kind of thing that’s meant. Accident leaves us in the realm of spilled milk and leaky diapers. 

But safety, as they say, is no accident.

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