Traffic safety advocates have sought specifically to reframe the way we think of crashes and to discard the rhetoric of "accident" as misleading.
An "accident" is, by definition, unintentional. We accidentally drop dinner plates, or send e-mails before we're done writing them. The word also suggests something of the unforeseen — an event that couldn't have been anticipated, for which no one can be blamed.It remains fascinating - and sad - how much death we accept on the roads because of automobile "accidents," and it is of interest to understand how the word came to normalize, even trivialize, traffic death as no big deal, something we routinely tolerate and look past. We profess to be upset by the deaths and injury, and though individuals who are directly affected by them are in fact upset and grieve, our collective upset still encounters barriers as it tries to rise to the level of the whole society and doing things in a determined and systemic way to reduce traffic death.
That second connotation is what irks transportation advocates who want to change how we talk about traffic collisions. When one vehicle careens into another or rounds a corner into a pedestrian — call it a "crash," they say, not an "accident."
"Our children did not die in 'accidents,'" says Amy Cohen, a co-founder of the New York-based group Families for Safe Streets. Her 12-year-old son was hit and killed by a van on the street in front of their home in 2013. "An 'accident,'" she says, "implies that nothing could have been done to prevent their deaths."
|Distracted driving and underage drivers|
Early examples of the word "accident" involving cars show that the way people interpreted automobile crashes under the word "accident" drew on a range of meanings that predated the automobile. And in fact the usage allowed for various kinds of intentionality. A much more complicated, even incoherent, set of ideas is embraced by it. If advocacy to say "crash not accident" has seemed to take more time and work than it ought to, if "accident" has seemed a very stubborn word in police reporting, in news, and in other conversation of many kinds, it turns out there is a deeper reservoir of established meaning for "accident" that still might have to be drained or critiqued.
|The complete strip: Do you know why|
we wonder at the vast number of automobile accidents?
(March 13th, 1919)
|Driving while impaired|
|Recklessness, speeding and again alcohol|
Otto J. Wilson brought the first car to Salem in 1903, and the usage "automobile accident" got established pretty quickly. Used by extension from other vehicular "accidents" involving trains, buggies, or wagons, it was developed elsewhere and inherited. Here's a couple of usages picked up from other areas of the country. While they sputter in outrage, they also use "accident" for the results of carelessness and neglect, even intentional acts. These also are not no-fault "accidents."
|Reckless drivers and "accidents"|
January 29th, 1903
|"automobile slaughter and no legal control"|
"murdered by a devil-wagon"
April 27th, 1903
|No car, but horses, a wagon, and train - December 17th, 1904|
Here is a clear instance of "accident" applied to something intentional and malign. This is not something many would today agree counts as an "accident." I suppose you could say this was a deliberately ironic use of "accident," something we would read today with air quotes, but at the moment I think it trades on a broader meaning of accident and does not require italics or air quotes or a knowing wink.
|December 21st, 1918|
Hence yonder Building rose: on either sideAgain, it's not possible to discuss the full range of meaning, but this hopefully shows a little of the way two very different ideas of intentionality and causation could coexist together.
Far stretch’d the wards, all airy, warm, and wide;
And every ward has beds by comfort spread,
And smooth’d for him who suffers on the bed:
There all have kindness, most relief, - for some
Is cure complete, - it is the sufferer’s home:
Fevers and chronic ills, corroding pains,
Each accidental mischief man sustains;
Fractures and wounds, and wither’d limbs and lame,
With all that, slow or sudden, vex our frame,
Have here attendance - here the sufferers lie,
(Where love and science every aid apply,)
And heal’d with rapture live, or soothed by comfort die.
Of course there were also incidents that look more like "no fault" kinds of accidents. In what I believe is Salem's first automobile fatality, Mary Holman, wife of John Albert and mother of Myra Albert Wiggins, died in a crash that is described as an "accident." Albert was probably showing off, and a little careless, but owning to the newness of vehicles and all, this one is closer to meeting the idea of no-fault accident as something unforseen and random. (Note that it was a steam car with a boiler and not an internal combustion engine!)
|Crashed July 5, 1905|
Died a few days later
|September 23rd, 1910|
|December 13th, 1917|
|From Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton|
|A 2017 course on "accident avoidance"|
* Yeah, I though that it was going to be a simple matter to go through early 20th century "accidents," but it was not. Readers familiar with the history in law and insurance of "accidents" are especially invited to comment! Maybe you will know something that totally revises the reading here. There is surely more to say.