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When you drink, then drive your car 100 mph and kill someone, it’s not an “accident”

Posted by on June 14th, 2013 at 10:39 am

“Driver in fatal one hundred mile-per-hour accident indicted.”
— Gresham PD press release

One of the things I do to stay abreast of local traffic news is to subscribe to press alerts from police jurisdictions all over the region. Not only does this help me find out about bicycle-involved collisions, it also gives me an unfortunate reminder of the immense carnage caused on our roads every day. The perspective I get from scanning press statements about people being hurt and killed every day on roads throughout Oregon is invaluable in maintaining a sense of urgency about issues of road design and traffic policy.

These statements are also an interesting window into how police and law enforcement officials use language.

One of the classic annoyances for people that pay attention to transportation language (and there are more of us than you might think!) is the use of the word “accident.” Accident has become the default term to describe traffic collisions in America. The problem is that the word engenders a sense of helplessness and inevitability about collisions when in fact nearly every collision can be prevented if we made better choices about personal responsibility and road design.

This morning, I received a press release from the Gresham Police Department that illustrated this issue perfectly. The statement was about a fatal collision in Gresham on May 14th. On that night a man who had been drinking got in his car and flew through the streets at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. When his car “rammed into another car” (according to the police), the person inside that other car died. The police have indicted the speeding driver on charges of first degree Manslaughter, seven counts of Reckless Endangerment and Driving While Suspended.

But here’s the headline of the release: “Driver in fatal one hundred mile-per-hour accident indicted” and a line in the release states,” Police are still looking for any witnesses to the fatal accident.”

I do not believe the actions a man who has a suspended license, drinks too much, hops into his car and drives recklessly, then kills another person and endangers the lives of at least seven others, should be considered simply a “mishap” or an “unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance” — both of which are common definitions for accident. I realize the man didn’t plan on killing anyone that night, nor does the Gresham PD intend to minimize this incident; but I think it’s worth pointing out that perhaps a better word could be used next time.

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  • Dave June 14, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I would like to suggest that ANY driving while chemically impaired should be classified as attempted murder. Can we start referring to dangerous drivers as “perps?” I really believe it’s time to start deliberately stigmatizing these people in the paper, electronic, and broadcast press.

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    • Hugh Johnson June 15, 2013 at 7:44 am

      Now just suppose I rode my bike down to the local brew pub and knocked down a couple a pitchers with my friends. I ride home intoxicated and could potentially kill a pedestrian while riding at a high rate of speed. Would I not be just as much a killer?

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      • Terry D June 15, 2013 at 9:01 am

        True. But how often does that happen compared to automobiles? If any cyclist gets smashed, rides their bike home drunk and kills a pedestrian, that cyclist should ALSO defined as a “perpetrator” and not be defined as having an “accident.”

        Now, let us do a math problem. 10,228 people died in drunk driving crashes in 2010. Does anyone know how many annual people are killed because they are hit by a drunk cyclist? I personally have never heard of a case, but that could just be me….The only study I could find was from NYC that looked at 84 bicycle related deaths over a decade and found that 20% had alcohol in their system….but these were deaths OF the cyclist and not deaths CAUSED by the cyclist. There is a difference.

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        • SJE June 15, 2013 at 2:05 pm

          As a general matter, if you get drunk and kill someone on your bike, you should be just as liable as someone who drives drunk.

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  • matt June 14, 2013 at 11:24 am

    No “accident” is an accident. They are all collisions. Accidents are incidents that can not be avoided. All auto related collisions are the fault of human error and thus could have been avoided. Even if the collision is do to mechanical failure, some human failed in installation, repair or neglect.

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  • AndyC of Linnton June 14, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Maybe they’re still called accidents because this kind of behavior is, for the most part, completely acceptable.

    Why would anyone think that getting drunk and driving this fast was okay unless there’s not really any disincentive not to?

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  • wsbob June 14, 2013 at 11:55 am

    With commonly used language, force of habit may account in part for why people use the word ‘accident’ so commonly used to describe collision of various sorts, without specific regard to factors causing them. Though this is common practice, I don’t think people generally assume that causes of collisions so described, are due to ‘helplessness and inevitability’.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile for people…especially those working in a professional capacity…writing out serious comments, reports and stories to make an effort not to casually use words that can conceivably be misconstrued to, perhaps unwittingly so by those reading…underplay the severity of people’s actions. At least until it’s known by some facts that an incident of some sort actually was…an accident…it’s better and accurate to describe incidents such as the one used as an example for this story, perhaps as a ‘crash’, or a ‘collision’.

    Common conversational language is rife with all kinds of casual, careless word usages…re-purposing of words, the effect of which can be dubious and unintentional when the actual intention is to accurately convey important information.

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    • longgone June 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm

      “With commonly used language, force of habit may account in part for why people use the word ‘accident’ so commonly used to …”

      Other examples include “awesome”, “hilarious” and “democracy”.

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  • Jeff P June 14, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    I wonder if in part it is a result of the litigation that follows; if presented by the press in a more descriptive manner – say CRASH or COLLISION – it may be seen as construing guilt. A defense attorney would jump on that as unfair.

    Regardless of the reasoning; an accident it is not.

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    • Vinny June 14, 2013 at 12:33 pm

      In the field of transportation engineering and analysis the industry standard is crash or collision. Pretty much only law enforcement, media, and the general public use the term accident anymore.

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    • John Lascurettes June 14, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      “Collision” is 100% a neutral word. It is exactly what it means:

      an instance of one moving object or person striking violently against another

      There’s no implied guilt or lack thereof. It is the appropriate word for all traffic incidents for which police are issuing public statements.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      I actually don’t use the word “crash” any more for that reason. To me, “crash” sounds like the fault of the operator (especially when “bicycle crash” is used). To me, collision is the best word to use because it doesn’t give any fault and it describe two things hitting each other.

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      • Kirk June 14, 2013 at 1:38 pm

        However, I think it should be noted that not all fatalities happen due to collisions with other people. Even ODOT recognizes this in their crash data by having a variety of labels describing the different types of crashes that can occur – one of which is a “non-collision” crash where a person causes their vehicle to crash (such as a roll over) without colliding into another person.

        That being said, I can see how the argument could be made where in the scenario I presented the collision would have occurred between the driver’s vehicle and the ground.

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      • JA June 14, 2013 at 5:18 pm

        Jonathan,

        Using collision instead of crash isn’t as straightforward as you might think. The AP Stylebook used to say only two objects in motion can collide (I don’t have a recent one). By that definition, two speeding cars can be in a collision, but a speeding car and a parked car cannot.

        But dictionary definitions don’t really agree with AP. Here’s an online piece from staff at The Baltimore Sun that shows the two sides. sides: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2012-04-24/news/bal-hey-ap-stylebook-i-found-another-one-20120424_1_robert-burchfield-etymology-motion.

        Regardless of whether a writer sides with AP, his or her editor may have no choice but to remove “collision” from a story if the news outlet is a strict follower of AP Style and one object wasn’t moving. An easy replacement word for the editor under deadline would be “crash” or “accident,” which puts the writer back in the original situation.

        I’d be interested if the “collide, collision” entry is in the latest copy of the AP Stylebook.

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        • Michael Andersen (News Editor) June 25, 2013 at 9:47 am

          JA, great point. My 2004 edition of the AP Stylebook agrees with the version you remember, claiming that a car and a telephone pole can’t “collide” so there is no “collision” in that situation. But in my opinion, BikePortland has a specialized understanding of traffic behavior that justifies specialized style practices — especially when, as you note, the dictionary agrees with us.

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          • Alan 1.0 June 25, 2013 at 10:36 am

            Sounds like a good reason to go style guide shopping. Here’s one focused on transportation language:

            http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Communications/StyleGuide/Index.htm#accident

            “accident
            “WSDOT style is collision or crash, not accident. An accident is defined as anything that happens by chance without an apparent cause, or a mishap, especially one causing injury or death. Highway collisions usually have an underlying cause. As a result, words such as collision and crash are more accurate.”

            BTW, if I were on the AP review board I’d suggest consulting a physicist. Even within the frame-of-reference artifice which they’re assuming for a “stationary” object, the physicist will tell them there can be a collision.

            (and then there’s When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style ;-)

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  • Sho June 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Accident is used liberally. However i doubt it was his intention to get in an “accident” either. Its similar to the use of “allegedly”, they are stating the facts without making an accusation. Is it an accident when a cyclist knowingly runs a stop then is involved in an wreck or causes one? There are no true accidents, someone is always at fault for either breaking the law or ignoring the facts of the situation.

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    • Chris I June 14, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      Exactly. By this logic, we would never be able to use the term “accident”. Ever. Break your leg while skiing? That’s a “ski crash”. Choke on a chicken fajita? That’s a “chewing impairment”.

      If we can’t use the term accident, how do we differentiate between someone that intentionally strikes someone with a vehicle, and someone that is just grossly incompetent?

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      • Sho June 14, 2013 at 1:14 pm

        If they are incompetent then it should be considered whether they are to perform the tasks at hand. Ignorance of the situation is no excuse, everyone does something incorrectly at times or performs “accidents” and there is always something that could have been done about it. I’m not against the word accident as you should have realized. It is used prior to an accusation. It is an accident until he is proven guilty – then it is manslaughter. It is acceptable to have police officers being judge as well

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      • 9watts June 14, 2013 at 10:01 pm

        Chris I,
        If you are really curious, I highly recommend Judith Green’s Risk and Misfortune: The Social Construction of Accidents.

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  • Craig Harlow June 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm


    …people that pay attention to transportation language…


    +1

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  • Craig Harlow June 14, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I shared a suggestion with my employer that the modify their daily and weekly safety bulletins to replace the phrase “preventable vehicle accident” with a more accurate phrase such as “preventable vehicle collision/crash”. The response was that they are very tightly bound by the safety event reporting terminology standards of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and ANSI (American National Standards Institute).

    It would be wonderful if enough public pressure was applied to those organizations to get them to get on board with the vernacular that’s gaining more and more ground in transportation-related fields.

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-08-04/news/9708050115_1_fatal-accident-reporting-system-crash-belt

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2013/02/14/new-york-dmv-no-longer-describes-traffic-crashes-as-accidents/

    http://transalt.org/newsroom/magazine/2012/Summer/2

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    • Craig Harlow June 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm

      FYI, links above are provided to illustrate that there is an increasingly strong movement in recent years in transportation communications to drop the use of the word “accident” in this context, since the word is often accompanied by a fatalistic (if only metaphorical) shoulder shrug.

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  • Belov June 14, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Glad to see this emphasized. A local motorcyclist died after hitting some jersey barriers on the far side of an intersection. During the ensuing media scrum, the local police noted that the other two serious crashes at the location were both due to the drivers trying to kill themselves or passengers. The motorcyclist’s friends were irate at the implication that their friend was trying to commit suicide, to which I thought, “well, if you’re going 91 mph over the speed limit (116 in a 25) while drunk at night, that’s the likely outcome.”

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  • Tim June 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    As long as we are paying attention to our words, how is-
    “issues of road design and traffic policy”,
    going to keep a drunk from killing somewone at 100 MPH. Without enforcement no design is reasonable let alone safe.

    Who’s car was he driving and why can you own a car when you cannot legally drive.

    We spend billions making safer roads – how about safer drivers.

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    • longgone June 14, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      An automobile is personal property. You do not have to possess a drivers licence to own a vehicle.
      A drivers licence on the other hand, is a privilege.

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  • Peter W June 14, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    +1 for language that doesn’t imply the driver is not at fault.

    I feel like this has been brought up numerous times but I don’t feel like we (advocates) have had much success changing the language that is used. I’m curious if anyone has ideas for creating a systematic change within ODOT, DMV*, law enforcement, and the media?

    *: Here are a couple places the DMV uses the term ‘accident’:
    http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/DMV/Pages/driverid/accidentreport.aspx
    http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/DMV/pages/driverid/accidentresp.aspx

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) June 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm

      Hey Peter W,

      There is definitely a lot more work to do on this issue… But FWIW, I have noticed quite a bit of change in the years I’ve been paying attention to this issue. The pinnacle for me was getting a phone call from the Portland Police PIO one time asking me for help and feedback to write a press statement! The officer knew language was important to me and he wanted to do the right thing. It was amazing phone call. Unfortunately staff people get moved around and if you change the mind of one person, it won’t become institutionalized.

      There have been many other places I’ve seen the change happen. Organizations, agencies, and so on. But you’re right, getting an institutional-level policy around language is a much heavier lift. My sense is that they’d have to be convinced it mattered enough to enough to people before turning the gears of the bureaucracy and making the change.

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  • SJE June 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    If I didn’t intend to kill someone, but got a loaded semi-automatic and started shooting wildly in an urban area, do I get to call it an accident?

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  • Chris Sanderson June 14, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Are you saying that Elvis Costello is full of bologna? Ha!

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  • Brad June 14, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    While dozens of cyclists got right hooked, flipped off, buzzed, and generally endangered by motor vehicles due to a lack of sensible laws, enforcement, and infrastructure, leading bicycle advocates engaged in intellectual fapping over the correct usage of the word “accident”.

    Perhaps my not yet born grandchildren will get a three foot rule or some cycletracks? Sigh…

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    • are June 14, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      you get a safer situation partly by changing the way people think

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  • pdxpaul June 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm

    I commend you for standing up for the issue, Jonathan. I have been in the “collision” camp for 20 years, give or take. Whorfian arguments aside, there is a speficificty issue that is better served by more attention to word choice.

    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=whorfian+hypothesis

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  • Kristi Finney-Dunn June 14, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Before my son Dustin’s death, I had not paid attention to the use of the term “accident.” It had to happen to us first. In reviewing the numerous articles, I don’t see that term used and that makes me glad since it is so important to me now. I speak at 6-10 victim impact panels and traffic safety classes per month, and at every single one this issue is addressed: “you didn’t hear about any accidents tonight…” A co-worker of mine was taken off life-support and died yesterday a week after a woman turned left in front of him -and then stopped. He was on a motorbike of some type and couldn’t avoid her. This was not an accident, either. We can’t allow ourselves or others the complacency to continue thinking “accident.”

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  • Kasandra Griffin June 14, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for your attention to language and for this good article.

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  • Suburban June 14, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    it is Clackonics

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  • Ted Buehler June 14, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    “Traffic crashes are not accidents. They are preventable events. They represent personal, family and community tragedies regardless of fault.”
    Sam Adams, Traffic and Transportation Safety Summit, Feb 2011.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150146433930985&set=a.10150134844320985.324536.699765984&type=3

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  • TrailLover June 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

    How about simply “act” or “action?”

    As in, “Driver in fatal one hundred mile-per-hour act indicted” or “Police are still looking for any witnesses to the fatal act.”

    At least it eliminates the impression that something was a passive occurrence.

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    • Dave June 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

      Let the media Fox it up–use language like “assailant,” “motorized thug” or
      “outlaw driver.”

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  • Chainwhipped June 15, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Here’s what will happen with this guy: His lawyer will get the charges reduced and the sentence will be shamefully kind.

    Someday, he’ll be allowed to drive again.

    What can be done to keep murderers out of the drivers seat? I’d really like to hear more public dialogue about that kind of thing.

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    • SJE June 15, 2013 at 2:10 pm

      We need to sever the criminal penalties from the driving privileges. Typically, you only lose the right to drive if you are criminally liable for someone’s death. This is backwards. The loss of the license should be whenever you cannot be trusted to drive safely: e.g after you kill someone.

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  • Pete June 15, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    I thought about this very subject earlier this week when hearing about this “freak accident”: http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Freak-Accident-in-San-Jose-Kills-Woman-on-Bike-211446461.html.

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  • BIKELEPTIC June 17, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Thanks for reminding us! I also like to make it a habit to comment on articles that use the word “CAR” as in “The CAR Hit a Utility Pole Causing an Outage for 17000 People in NE Portland” as happened just this last week. If it were a Cyclist, the writer would NEVER say “BICYCLE” because that would sound ridiculous! So I like to ask clarifying questions. “Was the car unmanned?” “Did it roll by itself into the pole/pedestrian/side of the building?” Because that could very well happen if someone didn’t properly set the break. If not then say it like it is. The DRIVER needs to be held accountable!

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  • Peter Marsh June 17, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    I also feel that the words used to describe “accidents” are important and illustrate society’s attitude towards the motor vehicle’s supremacy on our roads. I am especially disturbed by the words used by the police and media to describe a driver who they say “drifts/wanders/travels/runs” off the highway…..and maybe hits a cyclist.
    Those words could describe an unoccupied car that rolls down a hill, but if there is a driver at the wheel, then it was DRIVEN off the road, and the driver is “negligent/careless/criminally inattentive.”
    I don’t care if they spilled their coffee, were answering their phone, applying make up, or petting their dog–they are all liable for the damage they cause.
    (OK Except when the steering fails or the driver suffers a sudden and unexpected heart attack, stroke etc.)

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  • roger noehren June 17, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Michael Embacher shared this clip from Jaques Tati’s “Jour de Fete” (screening July 25th as part of the Film Center’s “Top Down” series), which features a riderless bicycle, in his Cyclepedia presentation:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXhRPnh1JSU

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  • esther c June 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    my dictionary says an accident is “unexpected” or “without apparent cause.” I would say someone who drives 100mph while drunk is pretty much expected to kill someone or at least slam into another vehicle or object. And the cause is pretty apparent too.

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