Don’t Call a Collision an “Accident” Says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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At Harvard University’s School of Public Health Conference in May 2017, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D., advised that for the NHTSA, a crash is not an accident. Dr. Rosenkind suggested using other words instead including collisions, crashes, or incidents.

The NHTSA, the US’s premier traffic safety agency, launched their “crashes are not accidents” campaign over 20 years ago in 1997. The term accident often gives the impression that the incident was out of human control. However, many of the over 32,000 deaths on the roads nationwide in 2014 were preventable. Therefore, the change in language use is key, although admittedly it is tough to get people to change their language habits.

An increasing number of safety advocates, grass-roots groups, and federal, state, and local leaders nationwide are campaigning to change a mentality which was trivializing the biggest cause of traffic incidents: human error.

For example, the Facebook page of the Ft. Bend County, Texas Sheriff’s Office proclaims, “Crashes Aren’t Accidents” and advises, “Let’s all work to drop the “A” word. Crashes happen because someone did something wrong. Drive safely.”

Nevada changed “accident” to “crash” across its state laws, including those laws covering insurance and police reports. In 2014, the city of New York put in place a procedure going forward as part of its Vision Zero Action Plan to decrease traffic fatalities including advising that it will not regard crashes as just traffic accidents. Several major cities such as San Francisco adopted similar policies.

New York-based advocacy group Families for Safe Streets, launched a campaign, “Let’s stop saying accident” which requests that followers pledge #CrashNotAccident. Over 4,000 people have signed up to date.

Close to 30 departments of transportation at the state level distanced themselves from the word “accident” when describing to roadway collisions. Finally, a policy adopted by The Associated Press utilizes the term “crash” when there is driver negligence.

The term accident implies that it is not the fault of any driver, crash is a neutral term that implies some type of misconduct. It is more accurate when describing why crashes happen. As the New York Times notes, “in our society language can be everything.”

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