One such word is “accident,” which brings to mind a capricious happenstance — a happening that lacks forethought and diminishes culpability.
With auto collisions, however, the use of the word “accident” in general, and more specifically in the government and media, has been under fire. Survivors and surviving loved ones feel that the term is a cruel insult to the injuries and losses they have suffered.
“When I hear the word accident in relation to Zachary’s death it makes me angry. It makes me angry when people talk about the crash as an accident. No one set out to hurt anyone that day, but careless driving and other human factors contributed to the death of my grandson.” said Beverly Shelton, known affectionately as “Grandma Beverly” in transportation safety circles.
“Eighty-five percent of all road crashes are deemed preventable, but 100 percent of distracted driving is preventable — distracted driving is a choice 100 percent of the time.”
Grandma Beverly is a co-founder of the Southern California chapter of Families for Safe Streets, and a governing board member of CalWalks. She helped to organize an event for the annual World Day of Remembrance for Road Crash Victims on Nov 18 at LA Historic Park. The event was punctuated by a renewed commitment to change the dominant discourse regarding the term “accident” in relation to road collisions.
Grandma Beverly has endured the unimaginable loss of her first-born grandson since Feb. 27, 2009. Five-year-old Zachary Michael Cruz was killed in a Berkeley crosswalk. Grandma Beverly has become a tireless advocate for raising public awareness of the very real costs of distracted driving as well as fighting for changes in local, state and federal level policies related to road crashes.
According to Grandma Beverly, “Eighty-five percent of all road crashes are deemed preventable, but 100 percent of distracted driving is preventable — distracted driving is a choice 100 percent of the time.”
In a March 4, 2014 interdepartmental memo, the US Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s George Reagle stated, “Changing the way we think about events and the words we use to describe them affects the way we behave.” The memo goes on to encourage the use of “crash,” collision,” and “injury” as substitutes for “accident” in FMCSA documents.
In 2016 the Associated Press Stylebook began cautioning journalists to avoid the term “accident” when referring to auto collisions indicating that the word “can be read as exonerating the person responsible.”
This call for a shift in the lexicon was started by Families for Safe Streets, a grassroots organization whose members have been impacted by auto collisions (either survivors of road crashes or surviving loved ones of road crash fatalities). The organization is joined by other grassroots groups in a nationwide push to end the use of what many survivors and grieving family members view as a reprehensible term.
A New York Times article on May 22, 2016 pointed out that the auto industry borrowed the word “accident” from the business community (which had appropriated the term to limit culpability over injuries suffered in dangerous and sometimes deadly working environments). In the 1920’s, at the very outset of deadly auto collisions, the term “accident” lent an innocuous connotation to a practice that has since claimed more than 3 million lives.
More than 100 years after the advent of the automobile, and the near immediate incidence of deadly and debilitating road crashes, people are waking up to the reality that the words we use can and do drive the dominant discourse on important social issues, including motor vehicle collisions. Words matter.