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Accidentally saying ‘accident’

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?

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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?

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9 responses to “Accidentally saying ‘accident’”

  1. I think “accident” has morphed its meaning over time to mean a crash involving a car and some other object. If you say, “they were in an accident,” without more, many (and probably most) people would think, “they were in a car crash.” I think this meaning comes more from our natural desire to interact politely. Polite society trains us to inquire about the health of the participants first, rather than ask about details and blame. It may be clear that their texting at the time of impact was the problem, but it isn’t always polite to broach fault face-to-face. The word “accident” finesses the details. Of course, these niceties work well at dinner parties, but not so well when it comes to public policy and the public discourse, where we should be more circumspect in our language.

  2. Brian

    I agree with Brent’s statement about the colloquial meaning of “accident” in this context — people hear “car crash.”
    “Accident” is also not necessarily inaccurate; car crashes are rarely not “accidental.” That is, car drivers rarely intentionally crash into people and bikes. To say or write “accident,” however, does not mean “blameless” or “inculpable.” I can “accidentally” collide with another pedestrian on the sidewalk while walking and texting, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be responsible for the harm from knocking the person over.
    So, I agree with what seems to be the underlying premise of the post that our society has a problem with not attaching sufficient moral outrage to the harm caused by cars. But I don’t think using the term “accident” let’s people off the hook or exacerbates the societal problem.

  3. central district james

    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?

    I am not sure how you can say that a motor vehicle/pedestrian incident is violent?

    Violent behavior is usually defined as intentional phycially agressive behavior against another person or groups of persons.

    The incident where the woman was jay walking accross Yesler and was struck by a woman in a Volvo was not violent – it was a lot of things – but I would not describe this incident as violent. Was the woman jay walking across Yesler violent – or was she just not paying attention to her surroundings?

    Having been taken up about 5 feet in the air after I was taken out by an 18 year old in a 3 Series BMW – I think I can say alot of things about her – but calling her or her actions violent would be BS.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      It is by definition “violent” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/violent

      I did not intend to imply crime or intent in my use of the word. I guess “violent” is another word with unintended connotations. Language is hard…


    2. alexjonlin

      If I am not paying attention and drop a glass on the floor and it shatters, that was an accident. Was it my fault? Totally! But was it intentional? Not at all! Therefore, it was an accident. From Dictionary.com: accident – an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap. Seems like a car crash fits the bill perfectly.

  4. JAT

    I’m not defending the use of the word accident, it’s a culturally pervasive tacit suspension of moral or legal culpability. It happens in part because alternatives are clunky. In air traffic control they call incidents where planes get closer to each other than the rules allow “separation conflicts”, and they’re willing to use clunky technical language because they place a high priority on investigating the causes of problems and taking correctional action to ensure they don’t recur.

    I think the recent widespread hubbub regarding pedestrian responsibility in crashes and near misses due to “distractions” such as iPods or texting while walking belies an unspoken premise: cars are big heavy and fast but they’re so engrained in our transportation system (and even our psyche) that we aren’t able to address the violent (yes), if unintentional harm they do. It’s not exactly blame the victim; texting pedestrians don’t look out for right of way, kids do run out from between parked cars to chase soccer balls, but these aren’t the droids you’re looking for, because we’ve got to drive!

    I don’t think we’re going to eliminate accident from the collective vocabulary for traffic collisions any more than we will for toddlers or puppies peeing where they shouldn’t. Damn it, Timmy, you negligently soiled your trousers again; that’s a six month suspension of your juice-box privileges!

  5. Sean

    Why is your use incorrect? Even though someone was negligent and at fault it doesn’t mean they hurt someone on purpose (i.e. not an accident…). We don’t need to substitue words just to place blame when ones that fit more appropriately will work.

    From dictionary.com

    an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap: automobile accidents.

    I guess I can understand if you’re writing from a legal perspective but…really?

  6. Caron LeMay

    When we look objectively at all the inherent risks of navigating 1000+lb, steel projectiles in close proximity to flesh and bone beings, it becomes apparent that driving is dangerous. But Denial keeps us driving.
    And using the same word, “accident” for both the smashing of a cup and the obliteration of another human being, causing damage to many other lives in the process, feels like devaluation: This devaluation of the human cost of choosing to drive may be necessary in order to sustain our state of Denial.
    But once you have been touched by the devastation caused by someone else’s decision to drive, then “accident” sounds callous, infantile, and dismissive: “Oopsie, I killed someone’s mother, daughter, friend, but it was an accident.”
    Removing “accident” from our killed-by-car vocabulary can only improve our chances that this Denial will not be sustained.

  7. Well said Caron. Language matters. When talking about automobile collisions, “accident” implies no fault and it minimizes the collision and injury or death that occurred.

    Using the word accident is an insult to the people impacted by the collision, particularly right after it happens and the details of how it happened are not known.

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