In Car Crashes, It's No Accident

Accident: noun – a sudden event (such as a crash) that is not planned or intended and that causes damage or injury.

Crash: verb – to hit something hard enough to cause serious damage or destruction; to damage (a vehicle) by causing it to hit something.


Two commonly used words with very different meanings are part of a growing trend to redefine how we thing of motor vehicle collisions and pedestrian injuries and deaths. For years, “car accidents” has been the common term to define everything from fender benders to multi-car pileups. But by calling them accidents, we avoid accountability. It turns an incident that could result in serious injury or even death into something akin to an unintended event, an Act of God. Calling them “car crashes,” however, turns the attention to the driver who was reading a text message, had too much to drink before getting behind the wheel or was in some other respect negligent and caused the crash.

But breaking a 100-year-old tradition of language is not going to be easy or quick. Use of the term “accident” to describe workplace injuries was, simply put, no accident. Manufacturing jobs at the turn of the 20th century were both numerous and dangerous. Workers were injured on the job, and to avoid accountability, companies referred to these injuries as “accidents.” During that same time, as more people began driving cars and more car crashes occurred (mostly between cars and pedestrians), the auto industry followed the lead of the manufacturing industries, calling many of these crashes “accidents.”

The language matters. The National Safety Council estimates that deadly crashes rose by nearly 8 percent in 2015, resulting in about 38,000 deaths. The vast majority of these crashes were the result of human error; only about 6 percent of crashes are cause by vehicle malfunctions, weather, and other factors. Calling them “accidents” conveys a sense that they were unavoidable and without blame. “Changing semantics is meant to shake people, particularly policy makers, out of the implicit nobody’s-fault attitude that the word ‘accident’ conveys,” the New York Times reported in May.

Advocates, state legislatures, and media outlets have begun using the term “crash” instead of “accident.” As reported in the New York Times, “at least 28 state departments of transportation have moved away from the term ‘accident’ when referring to roadway incidents.” The tide is shifting, pushing more to recognize that responsibility must be taken when it comes to motor vehicle crashes.