For someone who spends this much time and energy thinking and writing about misuse of the term “accident,” how did this happen? In a story about a pedestrian struck by a Volvo on Yesler last week, I referred to the incident as an “accident.”
I did not even realize I had done it until I read about it in Publicola. Erica aptly pointed to a series of recent local articles about collisions between motor vehicles and people walking in which the incidents were all referred to as “accidents.” When I saw the story I had written included in the list, I prepped my retort. “I would never use the word ‘accident’ to describe a collision unless it is clear there truly was no fault!”
But then I reread what I wrote, and there it was. “Seattle police confirmed there was an accident between a car and an elderly female pedestrian.” Really? I wrote that? How did that happen?
The short answer is that I was repeating language used by the SPD source I spoke with about the incident. I was concerned about the woman struck. I didn’t know yet how serious her injuries were. He told me her injuries were not life threatening, and I felt a wave of relief. I was taking notes, and when he said accident, I wrote it down. Somehow I didn’t catch it before it went to press.
Assuming every road collision involving a motor vehicle is accidental until proven otherwise is at the core of how we are accustomed to talking about road violence. It is so standard that I did not even think twice about repeating the term. And while I have learned a lesson about my ability to repeat this phrase, I also think this is a good opportunity to look at the effects using such a phrase has on public discourse.
The comments on that particular story lead to a pretty interesting conversation about the responsibilities of people using different modes of transportation. Walking in Seattle even wrote a post highlighting some of the comments. The question is: Did assuming the incident was an “accident” place a reasonable assumption of responsibility on the pedestrian? Without knowing many more details about an incident, does using the term “accident” automatically forgive the driver of some amount of responsibility?
I encourage other writers and SPD to try their best to stop using the word “accident” unless it is truly an incident without negligence. It is almost always too early to use the word “accident” when describing a breaking news incident. I understand (especially after realizing my mistake) that the word seems like a harmless synonym for “collision,” but it’s assumptions can be damaging and inaccurate.
Let me pose one more question: Why is an incident involving a motor vehicle the only common type of violent incident in our culture in which we immediately assume nobody is at fault?