Car . . . “Crash” or “Accident”?

24 May

An online campaign seeks 20,000 individual pledges to self-edit.

In our society, language can be everything.  — Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Chief of the National Traffic Safety Administration


Believing in the power of language to help save lives, the traffic safety czar and others are urging Americans to shift from “accident” to “crash” when describing car accidents caused by human error, which is many of them.  If with a single noun we can communicate more clearly the responsibility of drivers for thousands of injuries and deaths, the argument goes, we can hope to change their behavior behind the wheel.  Adds Rosekind, quoted in The New York Times:  “When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen.’ ” 

The logic sounds sensible.  . . . But . . .

“The more we use language to sugarcoat our terror of dying behind the wheel, the less action we’ll take to prevent automobile-related deaths,” offered Slate’s language blogger, Katy Waldman, who covered this movement a year before the Times put it on the front page.  But she goes on to parse the nuances:

. . . I don’t buy the argument that car accident is always an inaccurate phrase. Yes, sometimes an accident means an “event that happens unexpectedly, without a deliberate plan or cause.” (And yes, that definition jars when applied to crashes: One might reasonably “expect” vehicular mayhem to result if a driver is speeding and texting; one would certainly assign that mayhem a “cause.”) But the word can also simply describe “a happening that occurs unintentionally.” That seems to be the obvious spirit in which most traffic reports use accident today, and why not? Our justice system distinguishes between negligence and criminal intent for good reason. You could even assert that baked into the prevalence of accident is the fundamentally American idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” Ascribing bloodthirsty motives to a careless motorist feels as problematic as suggesting that she bears no responsibility for the pain she’s sown.

What position to take?

Next: a look at the word “great.” as in “Make America Great Again.”

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