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Car crashes are not ‘accidents’

Forget losing the “Quarantine 15.” For those looking for an easy-to-stick-to New Year’s Resolution that will make a difference, look no further than changing the way you talk about car crashes. Namely? Stop calling them “accidents.”

Here’s why: The language we use to think about and describe things affects the value judgments we make about acceptable behavior, and as a result, the way that we behave. When we call a crash, collision, or wreck an “accident,” we imply that these tragedies are inevitable, and that they’re beyond human influence or control. After all, “accidents” happen, don’t they?

When it comes to car crashes, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, according to comprehensive research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of all crashes are the result of driver error. That means that 36,000 of the 38,800 people who lost their lives on American roadways in 2019 could still be here today if drivers made different choices. Consider also the outcomes for the 4.4 million people injured seriously enough to require hospitalization – or the billions of dollars spent on auto insurance claims, incurred losses, medical bills, and litigation each year. All told, nearly 95 percent of it could have been avoided completely.

Crashes aren’t accidents, and they don’t have to be an inevitable, acceptable fact of life. In Wisconsin for example data from 2013 shows: -- Almost 19 percent of all crashes were the result of inattentive driving. Nobody “accidentally” texts and drives. They choose to look at their phone while behind the wheel. The crashes may not have happened intentionally, but the causal behavior did.

-- Another 18 percent of crashes are due to speeding. Speeding can be deadly and increases crash severity, as crash energy increases with speed. People often drive faster than the speed and our AAA Foundation’s Traffic Safety Culture Index finds that a large proportion of drivers confess to exceeding posted speed limits.

-- Over 13 percent of crashes are due to failing to yield. The purpose of right-ofway laws is to prevent conflicts resulting from one driver failing to yield and give right of way to another. All drivers are required to exercise due care to avoid a collision, and whoever has the last clear chance to avoid a collision has an obligation to do so.

This may seem pedantic, until you look at the data. According to research published in the December 2019 issue of Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, use of the word “accident” tends to shift blame to the victims of car crashes, and prevents people from thinking about these deaths and injuries in the context of a preventable public health challenge. Importantly, the study concludes, ridding our lexicon of the word “accident” has “the potential to save human lives and prevent injury on a large scale.” That’s significant, given that road traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for people aged between 1 and 54, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That potential is why NHTSA hasn’t used the word “accident” in its official communications since 1997, why Nevada lawmakers changed all statutory references from accident to crash in 2016, why the City of New York stopped using the “a-word” in 2014, and why the Associated Press Stylebook urges journalists to “avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible.”

In the new year, Wisconsinites hoping to take this important first step in preventing traffic violence can sign the pledge at