When her father was killed, even Emily Stein called it an accident. Five years ago, when she was six months pregnant, her father was struck and killed by a motorist who was driving distracted while programming a GPS. Though the cause of her father’s death was so tragically clear, even Stein defaulted to a word that implied the conscious act was somehow inevitable.
“The word accident was used after my dad was killed — by me, by the state police, and by the District Attorney who was representing my family,” she recalls. “Once, the DA did say ‘Well, it’s not really an accident, but you know what I mean.’ I thought about it for a second, but it didn’t register as something that we should change in our language.”
It wasn’t until she met Jeff Larason, a fellow Bostonian and the founder of the “Drop the A Word” campaign, that her thinking started to change.
“Words have meaning, and in the case of a crash that was 100% preventable, as my dad’s death was, accident is simply the wrong word,” she says. “It’s also hurtful to victims and their families. It both gives the impression of an ‘oops,’ and that ‘it can happen to anyone’ — and with that attitude, we tend to not take responsibility for the choices we make while driving. Now, I tend to correct people when they use the word, especially when it’s used to clearly describe a preventable, predictable crash.”
(Below: Emily Stein with a photo of her father. Photo by WBUR)
Across the nation, Vision Zero supporters, like Stein, are raising awareness about the power of language, urging the public, the media and government and community leaders to commit to shift the way they talk about traffic violence to make clear that crashes aren’t inevitable. The choices we make as individuals as we navigate our communities and the policies and designs that govern our physical environments are absolutely within our control.
Jeff Larason, formerly of the Safe Roads Alliance, has been a leading voice on the issue. As a traffic reporter himself for several decades, he recognized the error in his words after families of drunk driving victims shared their concerns about his unexamined use of a term that absolves the driver — and transportation decision-makers — of any agency or responsibility.
The pervasiveness of that term has informed — and deeply embedded —public perception of traffic violence. “We, as a culture, have accepted it,” Larason told WBGH, a Boston TV station, last month.
Vision Zero pulls out that perception by the roots, making clear that crashes resulting in deaths and severe injuries are not simply a matter of fact, but a matter of decisions within our control. And Vision Zero is planting the seeds of change throughout the ecosystem that shapes our streets, from the newsroom to City Hall.
One of the most prominent campaigns has come out of New York City, where Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets have mobilized residents to sign the #CrashNotAccident pledge. To date, nearly 4,000 people have taken the pledge.
Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions. Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word “accident” today.
Over the past year, the yellow and black “Crash Not Accident” buttons and signs have become a prominent aspect of significant streets demonstrations and, often times speaking from the podium, city officials have taken notice. Already, government agencies like the NY Police Department and the San Francisco Police Department have committed to officially drop the use of the word accident.
(Below: Photo of World Day of Remembrance vigil in New York City. Photo by Thomas DeVito.)
And there’s precedent for that shift. As Larason points out, at least one influential federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), officially changed its policy. “NHTSA established a policy in the 1990s 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,” Larason told a reporter last year. “They know not every crash is an accident, so they alter their semantics.”
That shift is happening at the state level, too. Larason researched the terminology used by state Departments of Transportation and found that 28 states use crash not accident.
That realization is rising at the local levels, as well. In San Francisco, where the city has committed to achieve Vision Zero by 2024, the Municipal Transportation Agency recently announced in a publicly shared blog post that “traffic ‘accidents’ are preventable, which is why we at the SFMTA refer to them as collisions or crashes.”
“The words we use can have a powerful influence on the way we view traffic injuries, and calling them ‘accidents’ implies that nothing can be done to stop them,” the SFMTA described late last year. “As part of our commitment to Vision Zero, we’re ensuring that our language reflects our core belief that no traffic fatality is inevitable or acceptable.”
Over the past year, the media has taken notice, too. A wealth of prominent outlets, from Wired to the Washington Post, have explored the importance of the language we use to describe traffic violence. In Boston and New York City, there are organized campaigns to institutionalize that shift in the official parlance of reporters by urging the Associated Press to change the term suggested in its Stylebook, which is used by countless reporters worldwide.
In Transportation Alternative’s announcement of its AP Stylebook campaign, Executive Director Paul Steely White noted: “By changing the language we use when we talk about street safety, media outlets like the Associated Press have the power to change not only the conversation, but also the culture.”
Up in Boston, Larason and Stein have been working to change the language used by local media — with some success. “WBZ radio changed their use of the word ‘accident’ to ‘crash’ and they are the major source of traffic updates in this area,” Stein says. “And WBUR radio and WGBH both did pieces discussing how media can have the power to shift language.”
But there’s still a long way to go. How can you help propel a shift in language and perception in your community?
1) Sign the #CrashNotAccident pledge — and encourage others to join you.
2) Formally ask agencies you work with to do the same, including your mayor, other elected officials, and representatives within your local transportation and police departments.
3) Meet with local media and editorial boards to request they do the same.
It may seem a minor slip of the tongue, but for advocates — and victims — like Stein, that single word can make a big difference.
“I have a small internal celebration every time I hear ‘crash’ on NPR now, and every time people correct themselves,” she says. “I truly believe that making people aware of their language is the first step [to ending traffic violence]. If we can convince the public that simply changing the word from ‘accident’ to ‘crash’ can potentially change our driving behavior and make us more responsible on the road, we might see a shift. A crash is something we all want to avoid. An accident is something that is inevitable and can happen to anyone. Let’s change that attitude.”