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Improving Auto Safety: “Crash” vs. “Accident”

Published on Oct 5, 2016 at 11:58 am in Car Accidents.

In my last blog I used the phrases “automobile crash” and “automobile accident” when writing about safety on Missouri roadways.  Before I could write about why I used both terms I received a few questions from very observant readers about why I didn’t just say “automobile accident” (thanks for paying attention!).  Hopefully, the following explains why I think we should use “crash” instead of “accident” when it comes to describing a majority of traffic fatalities and traffic injuries involving an automobile.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “crash” and “accident” are defined this way:

Crash:  To hit something hard enough to cause serious damage or destruction;

Accident:  A sudden event (such as a crash) that is not planned or intended and that causes damage or injury;

An accident is an event or incident that is unplanned, unforeseen, or unintended.  Everyone (including myself) nearly always refers to automobile crashes or collisions as “automobile accidents”.  When I think of an “automobile accident”, I immediately think that it was something that was unplanned or unintended.  In other words, someone made a mistake or couldn’t have done anything to avoid hitting another car (or person). 

We hear people say “there’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent this from happening.”   We are saying that we are completely helpless to stop car accidents from happening.  But, is that true?  Can we really say that all car wrecks are unavoidable?   Should we really start by just assuming that all car crashes are “accidents” and are unavoidable?

Let’s consider this by using two examples:

Example 1:  Bill is driving his dump truck through an interchange and wants to get on the highway.  While Bill is driving he is also checking his twitter account.  There was some breaking news about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s marriage that Bill doesn’t want to miss, so he’s trying to keep up on all the new tweets.  He’s also texting his friend Marcie about how upset he is that Brangelina is coming to an end. 

The problem is, Bill doesn’t realize he’s driven down the wrong exit and is now driving on the wrong side of the road.  Before he knows it, he crashes head first into Sherry’s car, causing injury and damage to both Sherry and her car.

Example 2:  Tom is driving down the road and a deer runs out in front of him.  Tom instinctively swerves to miss the deer and runs off the side of the road, damaging his car.

Can we really say both incidents were the same?  Should we start the conversation by saying both were “accidents”?  In one example, Bill clearly made choices that were unsafe.  He could have made choices to prevent from hitting Sherry.  In the other example, Tom likely could not have done anything to avoid hitting the deer or running off the side of the road. 

However, when we talk about both being accidents we are saying that both Tom and Bill made decisions that were the same.  We are saying that Bill and Tom could not have done anything to avoid the car wrecks.  Tom and Bill both get the same benefit of the doubt, even though one “accident” was clearly avoidable.  Instead of using a neutral term like “crash” to describe both events, we use “accident” which suggests both events were unavoidable.  I believe this is the wrong approach and leads us to believe we are powerless to stop car crashes from happening.

Putting the Issue of Terminology Into Perspective

Consider this:  When we first hear about a catastrophic event involving a train or plane, we never say “train accident” or “plane accident”; we nearly always say “train wreck” or “plane crash.”  The reason why we use these words is because we know that a train wreck or a plane crash is not supposed to occur.  These events should rightfully be considered out of the ordinary.   When it comes to a train wreck or plane crash we begin the conversation by asking whether something could have been avoided, whether someone made a mistake, or whether something malfunctioned to cause the wreck or the crash.   We do not assume that the train wreck or plane crash was something unavoidable and that we were powerless to stop it from happening.

However, when it involves an automobile we always start with the belief that it was unavoidable and that we were helpless to stop it.   Just as with planes and trains, I believe we should start referring to all automobile accidents as “crashes” or “wrecks, and then really look to see if the event was a true “accident” or whether it was an event that was avoidable.  From the above examples, Tom was involved in car crash that turned out to be unavoidable (a “car accident”).  Bill was involved in a car crash that was completely avoidable (not a “car accident”).   But, when a police report is written, the responding officer will describe the event in an “accident report.” 

If Sherry goes to the hospital, she will be diagnosed as being involved in an “MVA = Motor Vehicle Accident.”  But, was she really involved in an accident?  Did Bill really cause an accident?  Couldn’t he have taken steps to avoid the crash?  Shouldn’t our examination or investigation of the event begin without the assumption/belief that we were powerless to stop it from happening?

I know that people reading this might think, “who cares?  What difference does this make anyway?”   I thought that way too and then I considered how important these words are, and how we approach roadway safety in Missouri.  As discussed in a recent article, changing the way we look at how we describe automobile crashes could lead to an increased roadway safety and an honest discussion about how to prevent car crashes from happening. 

What Are Our Options to Improve Missouri Roadway Safety?

Safety advocates around the nation are leading a campaign called “Crash Not Accident” to change the narrative about how car wrecks occur.  I invite you to read more about this issue in the links provided below.  In the meantime, I hope all of this helps in understanding why I use the phrases “automobile crash” and “automobile accident.”  

In the following articles, I want to focus on the things we all can do to prevent car crashes from happening.  I believe that we have the power and ability to prevent a majority of car crashes from occurring.  I hope that after reading the next few blog posts that you will too!

If you have any questions, would like to aid in my campaign to spread awareness, or have been involved in a Missouri car crash and question your legal options, feel free to contact my office at any time. I’m Mike Campbell, and I’m a Columbia, MO personal injury lawyer who’s on your side.

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