Accidents are, umm, no accidents

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.

32 Comments

  • kit
    March 30, 2009 - 12:54 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • kit
    March 30, 2009 - 7:54 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • murphstahoe
    March 30, 2009 - 1:03 pm | Permalink

    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…

  • murphstahoe
    March 30, 2009 - 8:03 pm | Permalink

    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…

  • 331 Miles
    March 30, 2009 - 1:06 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • 331 Miles
    March 30, 2009 - 8:06 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • thedalyn
    March 30, 2009 - 1:46 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • thedalyn
    March 30, 2009 - 8:46 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • Jay Dub
    March 30, 2009 - 2:21 pm | Permalink

    "official vocab guidelines state they're now called traffic collisions because accident implies no one is to blame".

    - Hot Fuzz

  • Jay Dub
    March 30, 2009 - 9:21 pm | Permalink

    "official vocab guidelines state they're now called traffic collisions because accident implies no one is to blame".- Hot Fuzz

  • bikesgonewild
    March 30, 2009 - 3:13 pm | Permalink

    …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…

  • bikesgonewild
    March 30, 2009 - 10:13 pm | Permalink

    …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…

  • kit
    March 30, 2009 - 4:17 pm | Permalink

    @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.

  • kit
    March 30, 2009 - 11:17 pm | Permalink

    @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.

  • Joel
    March 30, 2009 - 10:42 pm | Permalink

    @ 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.

  • Joel
    March 30, 2009 - 10:42 pm | Permalink

    @ 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.

  • Joel
    March 31, 2009 - 5:42 am | Permalink

    @ jay – beat me to itIn 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.

  • Joel
    March 31, 2009 - 5:42 am | Permalink

    @ jay – beat me to itIn 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.

  • James T.
    March 31, 2009 - 6:11 am | Permalink

    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.

  • James T.
    March 31, 2009 - 1:11 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • James T.
    March 31, 2009 - 6:17 am | Permalink

    oops, I meant whose, not who's.

  • James T.
    March 31, 2009 - 1:17 pm | Permalink

    oops, I meant whose, not who's.

  • Anonymous
    March 31, 2009 - 6:52 am | Permalink

    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

  • Anonymous
    March 31, 2009 - 1:52 pm | Permalink

    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

  • kiwehtin
    March 31, 2009 - 10:12 am | Permalink

    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.

  • kiwehtin
    March 31, 2009 - 5:12 pm | Permalink

    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.

  • bikesgonewild
    March 31, 2009 - 11:41 am | Permalink

    …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…

  • bikesgonewild
    March 31, 2009 - 6:41 pm | Permalink

    …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…

  • jurjen
    September 18, 2009 - 11:01 am | Permalink

    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."

  • jurjen
    September 18, 2009 - 4:01 am | Permalink

    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."

  • ScaredAmoeba
    February 29, 2012 - 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Driven to Kill:
    Vehicles as Weapons – J Peter. Rothe 2008

    University of Alberta associate
    professor of Public Health J. Peter Rothe researched just this topic
    for his book Driven to Kill: Vehicles As Weapons. He writes
    about intentional violence of all types aided by automobile. A
    central theme of this book, according to Dr Rothe, is that “police
    investigations are not engaged on the assumption that a driver
    deliberately uses his vehicle as a weapon for maiming or killing a
    pedestrian, cyclist, or other roadway users.”

    “Stress! Vengeance! Impatience!
    Entitlement! Aggression! Mood! are prominent factors,” in traffic
    crashes, says Rothe, but accident investigations still focus on
    engineering and mechanical factors rather than the human element.

    He has a chapter on violence
    against cyclists in particular, violence which is motivated by a
    motorist’s feeling of entitlement to the road and irritation that
    cyclists don’t pay a mythical “road tax” amongst other imagined
    sins and shortcomings. “A ‘might is right’ mentality erupts in
    some drivers,” Rothe writes, “that pushes them to
    discipline [cyclists], to teach them a lesson, which sometimes
    means steering their cars into bikes, pulling into the bikers paths,
    or purposely swerving into marked bike lanes.” [page 112]

    In a chapter on road rage, he
    uses the example of bike messenger Tom McBride in Chicago. Carnell
    Fitzpatrick carelessly cut across Tom’s path; Tom swerved to avoid
    death and slapped Fitzpatrick’s car hood. Since Fitzpatrick failed
    to kill Tom the first time around, he tried a little harder by
    ramming Tom and running him over. Fitzpatrick’s front license plate
    fell off of the Chevy Tahoe, and McBride was able to hide the plate
    under his body before he perished. In spite of the plate and witness
    statements, Chicago prosecutors had to be pressured by local cyclists
    to bring the case to trial. Although the main witness who saw and
    described Fitzpatrick’s actions was threatened if he testified in
    court, Fitzpatrick was convicted of murder in a jury trial and
    sentenced to 45 years in prison.

    Rothe covers much more than just
    car vs bike and road rage incidents in his book. He has a section
    devoted entirely to what he calls the “Immediate Zone” — the
    murderer plans and uses his car as the murder weapon. “The car,”
    he prosaically writes, “makes direct contact with a victim.”

    Rothe doesn’t set out to
    demonize automobiles in his book, but to point out that automotive
    violence is a reflection of our violent culture. Instead of seeing
    vehicular violence as a normal, naturally occurring part of our
    transportation infrastructure, he wants to reframe it as a public
    health issue.

  • March 1, 2012 - 11:39 am | Permalink

    It’s a pricey book but I’d like to read it some day.

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