Saturday, March 16, 2019

1919 Cartoon on Automobile Accidents Shows Elasticity of Word

"Automobile accident" has seemed like a recent locution, a problem from the second half of the 20th century, very much part of the autoist project for erasing the driver and absolving cars and drivers from fault in crashes.

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.

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."
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.

Distracted driving and underage drivers
A cartoon strip in the paper 100 years ago on the causes and reasons for automobile "accidents" complicates a reading of the word accident that sees it mainly as later 20th century usage. It draws on established usage and asks Do you know why we wonder at the vast number of automobile accidents?

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)
We might wish for the cartoon to distill an essence and offer clarity on the origin and meaning of "accident" - at least that's a kind of grail I hoped for! - but instead it shows what a jumble of ideas we pack into the word.*

Driving while impaired

Recklessness, speeding and again alcohol
I'm sure there's a huge secondary literature on the history of the term "accident." It seems impossible there's not an extensive discussion of it in both law and insurance. The word and notion appears in contexts of farming, hunting, children at play, and also a full range of industrial accidents, some truly accidental, but others preventable, or even the result of intent or negligence. On the surface it looks like labeling something an "accident" sometimes functions for social cohesion in order to avoid having to investigate too closely harms that are not criminal, but yet not truly random misfortune. Accidents are a way to avoid assigning blame. We certainly have heard young kids say exculpatorily about their own errors, "It was an accident" and "I don't know know it happened." So this look at "accident" in the paper between 1900 and 1919 will be very partial.

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
Here's a local instance from 1904 that may give us the basic template for using "accident." It involves a driver with a wagon and a team of horses rather than an automobile. Even with a non-motorized vehicle, the usage is familiar to us today. The driver also appears to have been inattentive. There's not malignant intent involved, but maybe intent by omission. But it's not really something that meets a strict definition of no-fault "accident." Rather, it's an "accident" with a clear assignment of fault: "Young Graham...was not keeping a very sharp lookout."

No car, but horses, a wagon, and train - December 17th, 1904
These examples from 1903 and 1904 show carelessness and recklessness, but not outright malignant intent. "Accident," however, could also embrace calculated instances of deliberate harm.

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
From 100 years earlier, here's a word pair (italics added) that combines accident-as-random-misfortune and accident-as-preventable-even-intentional. From George Crabbe's poem The Borough on a hospital (1810):
Hence yonder Building rose: on either side
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.
Again, 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.

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
By 1910 the idea of a faulty accident was clearly normalized and routine. Here's a headline on "the regular every morning auto accident." But again the situation described offers likely causes, and this is not a no-fault "accident."

September 23rd, 1910
In 1917 the paper discussed a safety campaign using using silent films on "auto accidents." This implies there are faults and causes that can be corrected or mitigated.

December 13th, 1917
So when this 1919 cartoon at top is published, "accident" is already doing strange semiotic and cultural work. On the one hand, all the accidents in the cartoon appear to have a proximate cause with a driver at fault. Blame is clear. Yet labeling them "accidents" instead blurs, mystifies things, and reinforces a squishy notion of causation and responsibility.

From Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton
We still have this squishy notion. For if an "accident" can be avoided with better training and better skills, then it's hardly a true accident.

A 2017 course on "accident avoidance"
The "crash not accident" argument might seem to suggest that this use of "accident" is a recent term, a misuse of a word arising out of later 20the century autoism, and something that can be corrected readily in official reports and popular usage. But instead it appears that "accident" was used in squishy ways from the very start of the auto age, and that it may be more difficult to root it out.

* 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.

1 comment:

Walker said...

As you seem to have sussed out, the question of liability for “accidents” drives a lot of the issue.

Historically (and true today) “accident” or “casualty” insurance companies will not pay for any intentional acts of the insured that cause damage to others (intentional torts exception). But the insurer is on the hook up to the policy limits If you “accidentally” hurt someone else or wreck their property.

Ergo, there’s a huge, mutual totally unspoken but deeply felt need for both the wrongdoer and the victim to agree never to suggest that the damage was anything but an “accident,” lest the insurer get to pocket the windfall gain of premiums that have been paid while not having to pay out on damages.