Call Them Crashes, Not Accidents
Michigan Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor
On average, someone is killed in a drunk driving crash every 53 minutes. Every two minutes, someone is injured because of this entirely preventable crime. At any given point, there are potentially two million people on the roads who have three or more drunk driving offenses. These drunk drivers intentionally choose to drive drunk, knowing that they may seriously injure or kill another innocent driver or passenger.
Newspaper headlines and articles are typically written with the following words:
“Woman who killed best friend in drunk driving accident sobs as she gets sentenced to probation.”
“Tragedy struck last Friday evening as three people were killed in an accident on I-69 in Pike County. Initial investigation indicates that drugs played a role in the accident, in which Brian Paquette of Newport News, Virginia drove his SUV the wrong direction in both the northbound and southbound lanes of the interstate.”
Even appellate court opinions commonly use the following language:
“This case arises out of a fatal motor vehicle accident that occurred on March 20, 2017, at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and State Fair Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. At the time of the accident, defendant was allegedly driving reckless while she had cocaine in her body and lacked a valid driver’s license.”
“While driving his truck in the early morning, defendant struck and killed a bicyclist. Defendant consented to a blood test after the accident, which revealed the presence of several controlled substances, including anti-depressants and cocaine.”
“A car being driven by defendant collided with a sports utility vehicle, killing three of its passengers. The accident occurred after defendant led police on a chase at speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour. After the accident, defendant’s blood alcohol level was 0.135.”
“Defendant’s conviction arose from his involvement in a car accident that killed one person and seriously injured another. The accident occurred when defendant, the driver of a Dodge Ram pickup truck traveling at a high rate of speed in a residential area, while under police surveillance, disregarded a red signal at an intersection and collided with a minivan that had entered the intersection on a green light.”
How powerful is this word “accident”? The word suggests something of the unforeseen, an event that could not have been anticipated and for which no one can be blamed. From reading the above-mentioned headlines and court opinions, these events were undesirable and unfortunate happenings and unintentional occurrences on the part of the intoxicated drivers. In essence, it was something that could not be predicted or avoided by the intoxicated driver; it was just something that happened. It is clear, however, that is not the case. These events are not “Acts of God,” but predictable results of specific actions. They are “crashes!” Using the word “accident” in describing these tragedies implies the resulting injuries are unavoidable and that society should merely accept these injuries, fatalities, and damage as an inescapable or inevitable part of our daily lives. This is not a novel idea.
Distinguishing between “accident” and “crash” dates back to a 1997 campaign launched by the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave,” wrote Pamela Tatiana Anikeeff, Ph.D., NHTSA Senior Behavioral Scientist, on August 11, 1997, describing NHTSA’s new “crashes are not accidents” campaign: “Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control….”
Since 1997, NHTSA no longer uses the word “accident” in materials it publishes and distributes. In addition, NHTSA employees no longer use the word “accidents” in speeches or other public remarks, in communications with the news media, individuals or groups in the public or private sector. Many law enforcement agencies, including both New York and San Francisco Police Departments, abandoned use of the word “accident” recognizing it could deter the focus on traffic safety necessary to reduce death rates.
Always remember that “Words have impact, words evoke images and stir emotions.” Additionally, in November 2019, the Michigan Department of Transportation released a video explaining the distinction between a crash and an accident. More information and the video can be found on a new webpage: www.Michigan.gov/CrashNotAccident. The website encourages people to go to www.crashnotaccident.com, where they can sign a pledge promising to help educate others about why “crash” is a better word than “accident.” The site includes links to share a poster on social media. “Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say ‘it was an accident’ when they crashed their cars,” the poster states. “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.”
As law enforcement officers and prosecutors, when investigating and/or prosecuting a drunk/drugged driving crash, distracted driving crash, or a reckless driving crash, it is important to avoid using the word “accident” in police reports and in opening statements or closing arguments. We have a responsibility for road safety in Michigan, and as we go forward, we need to continue to reassess our efforts to combat the threat to safety on our roads. One simple way we can make a difference is by eliminating the word “accident” and to use the appropriate word “crash.”