The A-Word: Is There No Such Thing as a Car “Accident”?

The Crash Coalition is advocating media and safety agencies "Drop the A-word"—accident—in a new initiative. Is it possible to do so, and do we have a responsbility to do so?

car wreck on street

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Last Thursday, at 3 p.m. PST in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant in Los Angeles, Death Row Records founder Marion “Suge” Knight allegedly struck two men down with his red pick-up truck while fleeing attackers. Los Angeles County sheriff Lt. John Corina told reporters, “[It] looks like he drove backwards and struck the victims and drove forwards and struck them again.”

One of Knight’s victims died; the other was injured. Knight was charged with murder and is currently being held on $2 million bail. His lawyer told the Associated Press that the incident was unintentional. But witnesses at the scene dispute that claim, saying that Knight had been arguing with the victims prior to the incident.

That’s example number one. Last year, at 2014’s South by Southwest festival in The Zebra‘s hometown of Austin, twenty-one-year-old Rashad Owens fled an officer who had tried to initiate a traffic stop because his car didn’t have its headlights turned on. He made a turn out of a wrong lane, nearly colliding with a police cruiser, then drove the wrong way on 9th Street, rammed through a barricade at Red River, and accelerated into crowds of people for nearly three blocks. He killed four people and injured more than 20 others. The legal blood alcohol limit in Texas is .08; Owens blew a .114.

These two very different crashes have something in common: While both have been labeled by some media outlets as a car “accident” both incidents were allegedly intentional. This, argues Jeff Larason, president of the Safe Roads Alliance, is a problem. A problem of language, of intent, of our own culpability or lackthereof behind the wheel. To solve this problem, Larason and Candace Lightner, the founding president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, along with dozens of other safety groups, have spearheaded an initiative called “Drop the A-Word” — encouraging media outlets and government agencies alike to stop calling car crashes accidents.

Why Drop the “A-Word”?

Jeff Larason, himself a former traffic reporter, explains that The Crash Coalition is made up of several dozen safety and victims advocacy organizations who “are concerned with the connotation of innocence that is provided when the word “accident” is used.”

“Not all crashes are accidents,” Larason explains. “Victims of drunk drivers often cringe when they hear the person who hurt them say that it was an “accident” despite the fact that they made a conscious decision to drive drunk, an act which is universally understood to predictably increase the likelihood of a crash.”

He argues that to be able to call a crash an accident, “You have to know the intent, the circumstances of the incident itself. And when I was reporting on traffic incidents, I had no idea about the intent and circumstances of an event, or what the intent of the driver was, so every single time I used it, I was using it wrong.”

He adds that the ubiquity of the word is dangerous in a cultural sense, too: “If you are a young person and you’re growing up and you’re constantly hearing the word accident, there’s this presumption that it’s an ‘oopsies,’ that it’s not that big of a problem, or just a mistake.”

“Drivers have to think about what we’re doing behind the wheel,” Larason says. “We are responsible for the actions we take—driving distracted or drinking or speeding, those actions have consequences, and could result in a crash. We need to bear the responsbility on our shoulders. The most dangerous thing you’re probably going to do today is get in your car and drive around.”

The most dangerous thing you're probably going to do today is get in your car and drive around.

Larason says that for him, it’s not so much about the power of any specific word, necessarily: “The semantics that we use allow us to not take personal responsibility for the actions that we’ve caused, and the damage that we’ve caused by those actions. It bothers me because I don’t care about the semantics, but I do care about what it is that people think about what they’re doing behind the wheel.”

How the Coalition Was Formed

Larason connected with Lightner, President of We Save Lives at a safety conference in September 2014. Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter was killed in a hit-and-run in 1980 by a repeat offender drunk driver, founded MADD because she was enraged with the sentence he received: DWI (driving while intoxicated). Though Lightner parted ways with the organization years ago, she remains a safety advocate—and a vocal one, at that. That voice is what caught Larason’s attention.

Lightner alongside President Reagan as he raised the legal drinking age to 21.
Lightner alongside President Reagan as he raised the legal drinking age to 21.

“Every time I go to a conference and I hear a panelist say the word accident, I jump up and say, “Do you mean crash?”, Lightner says. “I don’t care who they are.” That includes the September conference where she met Larason. In a panel on media relations, Lightner jumped up and corrected a panelist, prompting Larason to ask for her partnership in the Crash Coalition. Lightner had done some work in the 80s with MADD to attempt to eradicate the word from media coverage, but the effort didn’t go as far as she’d hoped.

For Lightner, of course, it’s a deeply personal fight: “It’s an affront to those of us who have been involved, whether we’re survivors or family members. To say that my child was killed in an accident, especially when, in my case, my daughter was thrown 125 feet and he left her to die, and was out on bail from another hit and run crash—for someone to say that’s an accident is just beyond my comprehension.”

Is Change Possible?

Yes, Larason says. But it’s not as simple as one media outlet changing its policy. There are larger authorities on language in U.S. journalism, like the AP Style Guide, who could have a more sweeping impact. (Currently, there is no entry under “accident” in The AP Style Guide, often called the “journalist’s bible.”) And beyond media outlets, there are federal and state-level agencies, too: “There are federal agencies that have changed their policies, like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” Larason says. “They established a policy in the 90s that they no longer use the word accident when referring to a highway incident, so many agencies, first-responding agencies like police and fire, don’t use the word either. They know not every crash is an accident, so they alter their semantics, but not everyone has.”

But some experts say change might be slow-going. Katie Buniak is a Dallas-based copy editor with years of experience at national magazines. She explains that English usage is rooted, first of all, in what speakers actually use on a day-to-day basis. “I’m not sure how AP weighs suggestions to change or update their style,” Buniak says. “I would say it would have to be a very successful campaign or call to action for AP to consider a change. A lot of media attention and probably trending on social media. And if AP even accepted it, I would foresee it being a recommendation rather than a rigid rule. That seems to be more their manner for foggier usage area.”

English usage is rooted in what speakers actually use on a day-to-day basis.

Buniak did The Zebra and Quoted the favor of lending her language expertise to the word in question: “I looked into Webster’s New World (fifth edition), though, and here’s what I found. The “law” sense under the definition of “accident” states “an unforeseen event that occurs without anyone’s fault or negligence.” However, it is the last sense in a series of seven. Dictionary definitions are typically numbered by frequency of usage and/or the order in which the word was historically used in the language. Also, senses two and three of “accident” are deeply rooted in the language. Sense two: “an unpleasant and unintended happening, sometimes resulting from negligence, that results in injury, loss, damage, etc. Sense three: a) a collision involving a motor vehicle, b) the wreckage, etc. at the scene of such a collision [watch out for the accident on the freeway overpass].”

Buniak continues: “I think it would be almost impossible to eradicate these senses from the meaning, since they are so deeply rooted in our language. I would say their best bet would be to ask AP to recommend the use of “crash” or “incident” instead of “accident” to make headway.”

The exchange between Larason and the reporter.
The exchange between Larason and Rolling Stone reporter Jason Newman.

Larason has had some success via direction connection with members of media organizations: He went back and forth with Rolling Stone reporter Jason Newman on Twitter about the Suge Knight story, and eventually Newman changed the language in his piece from “accident” to “incident.” “I give him credit for being thoughtful,” Larason says.

And it was Larason’s reaching out that was the impetus for another publication’s change to their style guide: Nicole Norfleet, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, had written a piece in which she used the word “accident,” so Larason reached out to her via Twitter. She brought the issue to her coworkers, and eventually, The Star Tribune altered their house style entry on the word. Here’s the revised entry, courtesy The Star-Tribune:

accident, crash, collision

  • Any of these words may be used to describe “a happening that is not expected, foreseen, or intended,” Webster’s first definition of “accident.”
  • Some advocacy groups reject use of the word “accident,” contending that it absolves drunken drivers, for example.
    While we shouldn’t strain to avoid the word, use a more precise construction if it’s available.
  • Examples:
    The accident happened shortly after 7 a.m.
    Instead write:
    The boy was hit shortly after 7 a.m.
    Police said the accident occurred at the entrance to Hwy. 100
    Instead write:
    Police said the two cars collided at the entrance to Hwy. 100

Norfleet explains a conversation about language is always worth having: “I don’t think it’s ever a waste of time to talk about what words we use,” she says. “Language affects people’s impression when they read something, and how they think about that topic.”

Larason’s efforts had one other particular effect: They led to the writing of this piece. Quoted, for its part, will be developing its own style guide entry to help guide the use of “accident” on this blog—and it will likely look a lot like the Star Tribune’s entry.

What do you think? Is it worth it to argue against the use of the word “accident”? Is there part of the argument we missed?

  • Ed Beighe

    not complete, but a start:
    New entry:
    accident, crash
    Generally acceptable for automobile and other collisions and wrecks. However, when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms. See collide, collision.

  • betty barcode

    Excellent piece! Now let’s talk about the premature exoneration afforded by describing an inanimate object, the vehicle, as the responsible, active party instead of the operator of the vehicle. For example, “A truck hit a ___” or “A SUV struck a _____.” This is analogous to always describing gun incidents as “A pistol fired on _____” or “A rifle killed a _____.”

    Do we ever see this habit when describing other means of conveyance? If you are on a bike and you hit & injure a kid, would the headline read, “Bicycle strikes child?”

    The correct language should be, “A driver struck a ___.” This is a factual statement. Unless it was an autonomous, self-driving vehicle, #TheDriverDidIt.