Does it Matter if We Call Crashes 'Accidents'?

Safety experts, like NHTSA, and safety advocates, like bicycle and pedestrian organizations, have replaced the commonly used "accident" with "crash" or similar nouns. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones asks if it really makes a difference.

3 minute read

August 25, 2015, 12:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Kevin Drum reacts to Emily Badger's, August 24 Washington Post Wonkblog piece, "When a car ‘crash’ isn’t an ‘accident’ — and why the difference matters."

While most traffic crashes may indeed be unintentional, Badger writes that safety advocates, like Amy Cohen, a co-founder of the New York-based group Families for Safe Streets whose 12-year-old died in a traffic crash in front of her home, and Transportation Alternatives, also in New York, "launched a campaign soliciting pledges to stop using the word."

Language, they believe, shapes policy. The word "accident," they say, presupposes a conclusion that no one bears responsibility.

In short, safety advocates are less concerned about whether a crash was intentional than whether it was preventable. Distinguishing between accident and crash dates to a 1997 campaign launched by the nation's premier traffic safety experts, the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Scroll down to the Transportation Public Health Link (TPH Link) to "Setting the Record Straight on Terminology: Accident vs. Crash."

"Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave," wrote Pamela Tatiana Anikeeff, Ph.D., NHTSA Senior Behavioral Scientist, on August 11, 1997, describing their new "crashes are not accidents" campaign.

Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control....

That is not to say that accidents never happen when it comes to driving. NHTSA reserves the term for "acts of God," often referred to as "freak accidents," such as a tree falling on a vehicle.

Drum of Mother Jones disagrees. He sticks with "unintentional" as being key. But the advocates note that with other unintentional mishaps, even more severe than car crashes, we don't use accident. The pledge states:

Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions.

Even one form of traffic crash is no longer called an accident—when caused by drunk driving, due to the good work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and other safety groups.

"Traffic is an outlier here, an environment where we still behave as if some level of carnage is unavoidable, explained away with the same logic we might use to describe bad weather," writes Badger. "Hurricanes happen. Traffic accidents do, too."

The advocates have an uphill battle. After the horrific Metro North commuter train crash with an SUV that stopped on a train crossing in Valhalla, N.Y. in February that killed six people, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo told NY1 News, "Sometimes accidents just happen...Someone made a mistake and stopped on the tracks."

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), not part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, didn't sign-on to the NHTSA campaign. It continues to use the term 'accident. In their preliminary report of the above Highway-Railroad Grade Crossing Collision," they refer to it as an accident. No blame was assigned in their executive summary.

Monday, August 24, 2015 in Mother Jones

Aerial view of snowy single-family homes in suburban Long Island, New York

New York Governor Advances Housing Plan Amid Stiff Suburban Opposition

Governor Kathy Hochul’s ambitious proposal to create more housing has once again run into a brick wall of opposition in New York’s enormous suburbs, especially on Long Island. This year, however, the wall may have some cracks.

March 20, 2023 - Mark H. McNulty

Empty parking garage at night with yellow lines marking spots and fluorescent lighting

Rethinking the Role of Parking in the American City

In cities big and small, the tide is turning against sprawling parking lots, car-centric development, and minimum parking mandates.

March 16, 2023 - The New York Times

A futuristic version of New York City, with plants growing neatly on top of modern skycrapers.

Friday Eye Candy: 20 AI-Generated Cityscapes

AI-generated images are creating new landscapes and cityscapes, capable of inspiring awe or fear.

March 17, 2023 - Chris Steins via Medium

A mountain range at sunset appears in the background of this photo, with cacti in the foreground.

Biden Designates a New National Monument in West Texas

The Castner Range National Monument in West Texas is the second of two new national monuments announced by President Joe Biden this week.

1 hour ago - The White House

View of street in Chinatown, San Francisco with cars parked along curb and red Chinese lanterns hanging above street

Study: Autonomous Cars Won’t Solve the Parking Problem

In hyper-dense cities where incentives to reduce car use and eliminate parking are already high, mass adoption of AVs won’t significantly reduce parking demand.

3 hours ago - Streetsblog USA

A group of wetsuit-clad swimmers gathers to talk in shallow water near the shore of the San Francisco Bay.

Proposed Pool Would Make an Olympic-Sized Play Area in the San Francisco Bay

The San Francisco Bay is usually an undesirable place to swim, except for a hearty few. A development proposal seeking assistance at the state level would add a pool to the Bay’s waters to make the idea of going for a swim more appealing.

March 24 - The Mercury News

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

HUD’s 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.