In the New Year, save lives by changing how you talk about tragedies

12 January 2021

DEARBORN, Mich., (January 12, 2021) — Forget losing the "Quarantine 15." For those looking for an easy-to-stick-to New Year’s Resolution that will make a difference, look no further than changing the way you talk about traffic crashes. Namely? Stop calling them "accidents."

Here’s why: The language we use to think about and describe things affects the value judgments we make about acceptable behavior, and as a result, the way that we behave. When we call a crash, collision, or wreck an "accident," we imply that these tragedies are inevitable, and that they’re beyond human influence or control. After all, "accidents" happen, don’t they?

When it comes to traffic crashes, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, according to comprehensive research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of all crashes are the result of driver error. That means that 36,000 of the 38,800 people who lost their lives on American roadways in 2019 could still be here today if drivers made different choices. Consider also the outcomes for the 4.4 million people injured seriously enough to require hospitalization –  or the billions of dollars spent on auto insurance claims, incurred losses, medical bills, and litigation each year. All told, nearly 95 percent of it could have been avoided completely.

Crashes aren’t accidents, and they don’t have to be an inevitable, acceptable fact of life. In Michigan, for example:

  • According to NHTSA, eight percent of fatal crashes, 15 percent of injury crashes, and 14 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2018 were reported as distraction-affected crashes. Also in 2018, 2,841 people were killed and 400,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. In Michigan, there were 67 documented distracted driving fatal crashes, resulting in 77 deaths.
  • For the period 2015-2019, alcohol and/or drugs were a contributing factor in 4% of all crashes.  In fatal crashes that jumped to 53%. When you drive drunk or drug-impaired, you make a deliberate choice that your own convenience is more important than your life, or the lives of others. That’s not an accident, especially when 94 percent of drivers agree that driving impaired is completely unacceptable.
  • Similarly, of the 6,790 fatal or injury-causing crashes reported in Michigan during 2019, 21.4 percent were linked to speeding, 10.4 percent were linked to improper lane use, and 25.6 percent were the result of failures to yield the right of way. Had drivers simply chosen to behave differently behind the wheel, lives would’ve been saved.

The data tells the story.  According to research published in the December 2019 issue of Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, use of the word "accident" tends to shift blame to the victims of traffic crashes, and prevents people from thinking about these deaths and injuries in the context of a preventable public health challenge. Importantly, the study concludes, eliminating the use of the phrase "traffic accident" has "the potential to save human lives and prevent injury on a large scale." That’s significant, given that road traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for people aged between 1 and 54, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

That potential is why NHTSA hasn’t used the word "accident" in its official communications since 1997, why Nevada lawmakers changed all statutory references from accident to crash in 2016, why the City of New York stopped using the "a-word" in 2014, and why the Associated Press Stylebook urges journalists to "avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible."

"In 2021, let’s change our language to reflect the fact that traffic crashes aren’t something that just happen. They’re something we control. They’re a problem we can solve. Accidents happen, but most crashes don’t have to," said Adrienne Woodland, spokesperson, AAA-The Auto Club Group.

 

AAA in Michigan celebrated its 100th Anniversary - A Century of Service in 2016 and has over 1.5 million members across the state. It is part of The Auto Club Group (ACG).  Connect with us on Facebook and LinkedIn.

The Auto Club Group (ACG) is the second largest AAA club in North America with more than 14 million members across 14 U.S. states, the province of Quebec and two U.S. territories. ACG and its affiliates provide members with roadside assistance, insurance products, banking and financial services, travel offerings and more. ACG belongs to the national AAA federation with more than 60 million members in the United States and Canada. AAA’s mission is to protect and advance freedom of mobility and improve traffic safety. For more information, get the AAA Mobile app, visit AAA.com, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.