Accidents are, umm, no accidents

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Monday, March 30, 2009
By Yokota Fritz


Tom Vanderbilt has been harping a lot lately on the use of the word "accident" to describe traffic collisions. He's also commenting a lot, lately, on the use of passive voice in news reports about traffic collisions. For example, "Joe Blow was killed when a car crossed the center line and struck him head on." There's little indication that the inanimate car was controlled by a driver.

A local (to me) example is the reporting after Santa Clara County Sheriff Deputy James Council drove his car into cyclists Matt Peterson and Kristy Gough last year. KTVU describes the collision thusly: "A rookie Santa Clara County sheriff's deputy whose patrol car swerved into a group of cyclists on a training ride, killing them...." The article happens to be on the deputy's history of drunk driving, but there's no indication in the lead sentence that the deputy was the one who actually driving his car -- it was the patrol car that swerved into the cyclists.

The San Jose Mercury News did even worse when they maddengly printed, "The group collided with the deputy’s car" when describing the accident, although the cyclists were riding lawfully on their side of the rode and it was the deputy who drifted over the line into oncoming traffic.

The San Francisco Chronicle did a better job assigning agency to the driver of the vehicle: " A rookie Santa Clara County deputy sheriff patrolling a winding Cupertino road Sunday morning veered into the opposite lane of traffic and struck three bicyclists, killing two."

Vanderbilt asks questions one why journalists use the passive voice so much in their traffic reporting.
I am frankly not sure why we are so afraid to assign responsibility in car crashes. Is it that we view traffic violations in general as “folk crimes,” not quite “real” crimes? Is it the “there for the grace of God” argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of “a car that strikes a pedestrian”? I sometimes hear the argument made, ‘well that driver will suffer the rest of his life for what he did’; maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s not provable, not quantifiable. Prison time is.

Tom asks some important questions in my opinion.


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Comments:
I am getting irritated with this semantics argument. I would posit that this is the voice the media uses because it's the most concise way of describing an event. Print loves tight copy.

The Chronicle example you cited not only uses more words, it leaves more ambiguity about certain elements of the crash. Was he driving a car, van, or motorcycle?

Consider another scenario--bicycle crashes. A quick google fight (http://www.googlefight.com/index.php?lang=en_GB&word1=%22when+his+bicycle+crashed%22&word2=%22when+he+crashed+his+bicycle%22) of the phrases "when he crashed his bicycle" versus "when his bicycle crashed" yields a win for the latter with a score of 196/40. Seems to me this is more an argument over personal responsibility than it is over automobiles, and that's fine, but let's not frame it up as bicycle activism.

I also have to take issue with the focus on the insidiousness of the word "accident." Unless we are talking about a case where an individual intentionally kills someone with a motor vehicle, in which case I'm fairly sure the media would not report it as an accident, the death is, by definition, accidental (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/accident).

I feel like these arguments are grasping at straws when there are so many more important things for us to focus our energies on.

My two cents.
 
My problem with your argument kit - read the comments section that follows the articles...

typical...

"This was HORRIBLE and I REALLY feel for the dead people, but it was an ACCIDENT. Mr Snidely will have to live with the thought of those two people that were killed"

s**t happens...
 
I agree with Kit regarding the use of the word "accident". In the cases you cite, nobody intentionally killed a cyclist. Was it preventable? Probably. Was it an accident? Yes.
 
It's not semantics actually; it's the English language (which is based on active voice: subject/verb/object) and the very real problems that occur as a result of passive voice. Passive voice indicates that the subject is being acted upon. So, in this case, the driver is being subjected to the accident and the cyclists, as opposed to being the agent of the accident. Additionally, passive voice is used in scientific writing for the appearance of objectivity. Last, passive voice is not concise. Ever. It obscures meaning and action and almost always does so using more words than active voice. As a result, using passive voice has a very real effect on the perceptions of these accidents and shouldn't be dismissed as semantics.
 
"official vocab guidelines state they're now called traffic collisions because accident implies no one is to blame".

- Hot Fuzz
 
...the dichotomy to my way of thinking is that the media will oft times use "sensationalistic" terminology to grab your attention & yet will not utilize the proper language when detailing actual events...thus creating an ambiguity in regard to "clear cut" situations...
 
This post has been removed by the author.
 
@thedayln -- you're completely right regarding passive voice. it's never the most concise way of communicating. i know better than to have talked myself into that hole.

the point that holds water amidst my very verbose comment is this: this is a problem with the way the media reports on stories as a whole, not an example of anti-cyclist, pro-motor vehicle sentiment.
 
@ jay - beat me to it

In all seriousness, I wish the most important thing in stories like this was the terminology used. While I do feel strongly that too-often drivers who hit other people on the road get off too-lightly I don't think that changing the words used to discuss the incidents will do much. I think it's more likely that the terminology used reflects the thought process and THAT is what we need to be working to change.
 
@ jay - beat me to it

In all seriousness, I wish the most important thing in stories like this was the terminology used. While I do feel strongly that too-often drivers who hit other people on the road get off too-lightly I don't think that changing the words used to discuss the incidents will do much. I think it's more likely that the terminology used reflects the thought process and THAT is what we need to be working to change.
 
331 miles said, “I agree with Kit regarding the use of the word "accident". In the cases you cite, nobody intentionally killed a cyclist. Was it preventable? Probably. Was it an accident? Yes.”

I am sure that you are right that in these cases no one set out to intentionally kill a cyclist, but gross negligence while operating a 3,000-pound vehicle is not something that we should dismiss so easily. The root problem here is that we are very accustomed to hearing about traffic fatalities (40,000+ per year in the US alone), so referring to them as “accidents” is the most convenient way for most people to deal with those horrible statistics.

If someone decided to go target shooting in a public place and “accidentally” shot and killed a passerby, the media probably would not report the event as a simple accident. More likely the shooter would be portrayed as crazy public menace that took an innocent life, not as someone who’s bullet just accidentally strayed into the path of a person walking by. Yeah, I understand that we are conditioned to drive all over the place and that there is no reason to go shooting a gun in public. I acknowledge that there is a difference, but the point is that driving a car IS a very dangerous activity- in fact it is the most dangerous thing that most people do on a regular basis. If someone dies because a driver is not paying full attention, I don’t see how one can call it an “accident” and therefore imply that the driver is absolved of all responsibility for taking a life.
 
oops, I meant whose, not who's.
 
Unintentional and therefore merely an accident? As discussed and pointed out by others, anyone who puts a key in the ignition a a 3000+ pound vehicle and fails to accept the accompanying responsibilities is negligent. By relieving the public of those responsibilities, we have made our transportation system less safe. Imagine how outraged the public would be if over 40,000 died every year on mass transit. The MSM is an integral part of making the public feel less than responsible.
Jack
 
I think there *is* a real problem with the way the word "accident" is used as the almost standard word to describe crashes involving *automobiles*. The most neutral term is *crash* (or its more euphemistic relative "collision", which applies to contact even without violent results). "Accident" already applies a judgement because it presupposes that the person operating the vehicle was *due to no fault of their own* deprived of control of the vehicle.

It seems to me that for any vehicle but cars, "crash" or "collision" is the term used, not "accident":

train: derailment, crash (accident?!)
plane, helicopter: crash (accident?!)
bus: crash (accident?!)
truck: crash (accident?!)
bicycle: crash (accident?!) (Having a "bicycle accident" almost sounds like you peed on your saddle or something...)
boat(ing): sinking, crash, collision (accident?!)
walking: "bump into" (have an accident?! - sounds like peeing again, or dropping a coffee cup...)

All I can do is judge on the relative strangeness of the words used, based on what I am used to reading and hearing in the news. Perhaps someone should do an actual survey of how the words cooccur in Internet news reports to see if my impression is right.

In any case, for every kind of violent incident involving a vehicle other than a car, news writers seem to avoid judging the operator's control or lack of it in bringing the incident about.

Another thing: when a victim is a cyclist, one gets the impression that it is mentioned more often than not whether the victim was wearing a cycling helmet. This, no matter whether or not being hit by a car would have affected a pedestrian in the same circumstances in exactly the same way. And when car occupants are killed or severely injured due to head injury, that is just passed off almost as if it were an unfortunate inevitability not worthy of comment; and I have certainly never seen any news report venture to bring helmets into the discussion in such cases.
 
...agreed that the "thought process" is both important & generally in need of change...

...but the terminology is important because an "accident" report can be easily dismissed if the phrasing used doesn't convey the actual event...

...it would seem at times that we, as cyclists are held in no more regard than an annoyance by the media & the population in general...newsworthy on occasion if it suits the purpose of the tabloids but not really considered "serious enough" to be granted full & equal rights as commuters & road users...
 
To latch onto what James said, if you ask any responsible gun owner (and I am a gun owner, and I hope a responsible one) about unintentional discharges, he or she will insist that almost all unintentional discharges are not "accidental"; they are the result of negligence, i.e. a failure by the operator to follow the basic rules of firearm safety. The term "accidental discharge" is only appropriate when the discharge occurs due to a mechanical malfunction on the part of the firearm, and this is an extremely rare occurrence. And even when a discharge is truly accidental, but results in someone being injured, responsible gun owners will insist that negligence occurred on the part of the operator, in not adhering to Gun Safety Rule #2: "Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you aren't willing to destroy."
 
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