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Director of Public Affairs Nich Jarmusz reportedly said: “If you look over the last 12 months, we’ve certainly seen a significant decrease in traffic volumes and vehicle miles traveled during the pandemic, but we have not seen a decrease in the number of fatal crashes on the road, in fact we’ve seen about a 7% increase in Wisconsin.”
He further explained: “We typically hear the word accident being used interchangeably and while it may seem pedantic and certainly no one intentionally gets into a crash, accident can have the effect of making people think that it’s something that’s kind of unavoidable or just an inevitable part of driving.”
And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirms this, pointing out that 94% of all crashes are the result of driver error. Jarmusz continued, “The big three, especially in terms of fatal crashes, are alcohol or drug impaired driving, speeding, and then distraction.”
But the effort to get people to say “car crash” instead of “accident” is not new. In a 2015 article by the Washington Post, Amy Cohen, a co-founder of the New York-based group Families for Safe Streets who’s 12-year-old son was hit and killed by a van on the street in front of their home in 2013, told the publication: “Our children did not die in ‘accidents.’ An ‘accident,’ implies that nothing could have been done to prevent their deaths.”
Back then, her group and advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives launched a campaign soliciting pledges to stop using the word. They say that language shapes policy. The word “accident,” they say, presupposes a conclusion that no one bears responsibility. Advocates argue that when the language we use to describe a problem suggests none of its violence or even the possibility of root causes, then we’re not likely to seriously invest in designing safer streets or enforcing traffic laws.
Los Angeles is infamous for pedestrian deaths caused by road violence — it’s actually the top worst city for pedestrian deaths in the U.S. Over 65% of all severe and fatal traffic collisions involving people walking occur on just 6% of our city streets, and it’s known as the High-Injury Network. Of the 86 traffic collision deaths in Los Angeles by May 2020, 50 victims — nearly 60% — were pedestrians killed by drivers.
As Caroline Samponaro, deputy director at Transportation Alternatives, suggested, if we as a society stopped using that word, we can start asking ourselves the questions that matter, mainly: How did they happen? Who was to blame? An erratic driver? A faulty vehicle? A perpetually dangerous intersection?
And these questions are important to have, especially when the absence of them and placing the responsibility on the negligent driver costs lives. In Oct. 2019, a pre-schooler named Alessa Fajardo was killed by a driver in Koreatown while crossing with the light in a crosswalk, holding her mother’s hand. The woman who killed Alessa, Indira Marrero, was not arrested. Police said she cooperated with the investigation — which was deemed “an accident” — and was allowed to leave the scene. She was eventually charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and driving without a license, both misdemeanors. Marrero didn’t end up showing up for her arraignment this past Nov., and a warrant was issued for her arrest. As of Jan. 2021, she has not been arrested.
“It’s language that’s been indoctrinated. The New York Police Department report you get when your child is killed is called an ‘accident report’ because the New York state DMV won’t change the language on the report because the New York state traffic and vehicular code still calls it an ‘accident,’” Cohen further explained.
Katy Waldman, writing at Slate, has argued that the word “crash” assigns guilt where “accident” presumes innocence. The word, though, while it conjures greater violence, doesn’t necessarily ascribe fault. “Crash” is in fact more neutral: they can be accidental, but accidents can’t be blamed.
Of course, accidents out on the roads do in fact happen. Your car could very well slip on black ice and still not be at fault because you can’t control that. But the automatic supposition shouldn’t be that no one’s to blame.