We normally only update articles at Enjuris when there has been a change in the law or a new ruling handed down, which makes an older article relevant again. This time, however, we were notified of a Tweet by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an advocacy group working to end drunk and drugged driving, as well as provide resources and education for underage drinkers. They told us that we should always use “car crash” instead of “car accident,” because of the power of language.
Words are indeed very powerful. The right combination can completely change the way something is perceived.
Take, for example, the way automobile collisions are described. For years, the most polite way to describe these horrific incidents was to call them “accidents.” An accident implies that nobody is at fault. It conveys the sense that the event could not have been avoided. This means that “accident” is used to describe everything from a minor ding in the door to disastrous wrecks that destroy vehicles and end lives.
What do you feel when you hear the word “accident” versus “crash”? One of those words makes you feel dread, but the other makes you flinch. A crash is sudden, painful, potentially world-shattering. A crash means pain. A crash means broken property. A crash means someone hit you, and someone is responsible.
An organization called Families for Safe Streets was formed by victims of reckless driving and those who have lost loved ones to traffic violence on New York streets. They and other organizations are fighting not only to replace “accident” with “crash” in New York (which their police department opted for in 2013), but also to implement this change throughout the country.
The reasoning is that “crash” conveys what has actually occurred. It will inspire people to take an incident more seriously, and it will also lend credence to the idea that these incidents are preventable.
When automobiles were first made available in the United States back in the 1910s and 1920s, media coverage of crashes played up their violent and gruesome nature; this was part of the “Yellow Journalism” period, where – crassly, and in an unfortunate trend that continues today – if it bled, it led the headlines. This sensationalistic coverage only made cars look like dangerous metal killing machines. If a pedestrian was hit by a car, or a driver was severely injured or killed, it was seen as the fault of the car itself and not of the driver.
This obviously didn’t sit well with automobile manufacturers. Efforts were made on the industry’s part to shift blame from cars to pedestrians or negligent drivers whenever a crash occurred. By calling these collisions “accidents,” it in fact stated that even the worst crashes were freak occurrences – accidents, if you will – that were in no way the fault of a dangerous machine.
The use of “accident” to describe these events was commonplace by the 1960s. However, in 1994, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration insisted that these collisions once again be referred to as “crashes.” In 2013, New York and San Francisco police departments decided to buck the national trend and use “crash” in their reports.
“Crash” is a violent word, and car crashes are violent events. They kill thousands of people every year in the United States, and even when there are no fatalities there are still serious injuries as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. People need to be reminded of the seriousness of these incidents. They need to be reminded that real people are behind every statistic (as MADD notes on their website), and those numbers hold real pain.
A child who wets himself has had an “accident.” A person who veers off the highway into a ravine has had a “car crash.” The former happened for little to no reason. The latter was a serious disaster, a split-second moment that led to injuries, medical bills, lawyers and insurance companies. They are two different words with different meanings, and that must be respected.
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