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Crash or Accident?

If, like me and millions of other Americans, you used the Waze navigation app for your Labor Day holiday driving, you probably encountered somewhere along the way a screen like this one:

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Last year, that screen would have been different. Rather than notifying the user of a crash, the word would have been accident.

The change is due in large part to the efforts of Jeff Larason, a former Boston traffic reporter who’s now the director of highway safety for Massachusetts. For about four years, he and like-minded colleagues, including Candace Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have been trying to get rid of accident in reference to traffic collisions. If a drunk or distracted driver plows into another vehicle, they argue, how accidental is that? “The word wrongly implies that human decisions and actions have nothing to do with it,” Larason says.

The campaign has borne fruit. Most notably, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association has been on board since the 1990s and has lately made an extra push. Here’s a screen shot of one of its statistical reports:

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Larason reports that to date, 30 states have pledged not to use accident. In 2014, the country’s biggest city adopted a street-safety action plan that declared, “The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere ‘accidents,’ but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed.” The biggest get of all was the Google-owned Waze, which came on board this year, maybe partly because crash fit into its cartoonlike iconography better than accident. (Even bigger would be Google Maps, but like many who have tried to penetrate the opaque company, Larason hasn’t yet managed to get Google to return his calls.)

When you think about it, it’s odd that accident would have become the standard term for incidents in which a car collides with another car or other significant object. A New York Times article about the crash-not-accident effort provided some interesting historical background. Apparently, accident

was introduced into the lexicon of manufacturing and other industries in the early 1900s, when companies were looking to protect themselves from the costs of caring for workers who were injured on the job, according to Peter Norton, a historian and associate professor at the University of Virginia’s department of engineering. …

“Relentless safety campaigns started calling these events ‘accidents,’ which excused the employer of responsibility,” Dr. Norton said.

When traffic deaths spiked in the 1920s, a consortium of auto-industry interests, including insurers, borrowed the word to shift the focus away from the cars themselves. “Automakers were very interested in blaming reckless drivers,” Dr. Norton said.

Things were apparently still in flux in 1924, when a single Times article used accident, crash (as a verb), collision, and smash (which seems to have fallen by the wayside):

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At this point, pushing aside accident in public usage will be a difficult task, as seen in this Google Ngram Viewer chart showing historical frequency of three phrases in English-language books.

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Reliable data for Ngram Viewer only go up to 2000, but it appears that the campaign hasn’t significantly changed usage, at least in U.S. newspapers.  The chart below shows their use of car accident and car crash over the last five years.

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I don’t mean to say that Larason and his cohorts won’t be able to persuade people not to say accident. Similar campaigns have had success in pushing aside such terms as Negro, midget, and a now frowned-upon term for the developmentally disabled.

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Ngram Viewer chart showing use of “is retarded” in English-language books.

 

But, as entrenched as accident is, it won’t be easy.

Meanwhile, Larason continues his efforts, using any means at his disposal. Recently he lobbied the Boston radio station WBZ to make a change in its traffic reports.  He told them that if they used crash instead of accident, over the course of the year, it would save two hours of air time, which they could use to sell ads.

WBZ made the change.

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