2021 Resolution: Crash, Not Accident

In the new year, save lives by changing how you talk about tragedies.

Traffic Safety

DENVER (Jan. 4, 2021)  - Forget losing the "Quarantine 15." For those looking for an easy-to-stick-to New Year's Resolution that will make a difference, look no further than changing the way you talk about car crashes. Namely? Stop calling them "accidents." 

Here's why: The language we use to think about and describe things affects the value judgments we make about acceptable behavior, and as a result, the way that we behave. When we call a crash, collision, or wreck an "accident," we imply that these tragedies are inevitable, and that they're beyond human influence or control. After all, "accidents" happen, don't they?

When it comes to car crashes, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, according to comprehensive research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of all crashes are the result of driver error . That means that 36,000 of the 38,800 people who lost their lives on American roadways in 2019 could still be here today if drivers made different choices. Consider also the outcomes for the 4.4 million people injured seriously enough to require hospitalization –  or the billions of dollars spent on auto insurance claims, incurred losses, medical bills, and litigation each year. All told, nearly 95 percent of it could have been avoided completely.

Crashes aren't accidents, and they don't have to be an inevitable, acceptable fact of life. In Colorado, for example: 

  • Fully 26 percent of all crashes between 2005 and 2018 were the result of driver distraction. Nobody "accidentally" texts and drives. They choose to look at their phone while behind the wheel. The crashes may not have happened intentionally, but the causal behavior did.
  • Over the same period, substance-impaired drivers caused 10 percent of all crashes. When you drive drunk or drug-impaired, you make a deliberate choice that your own convenience is more important than your life, or the lives of others. That's not an accident, especially when 94 percent of drivers agree that driving impaired is completely unacceptable
  • Similarly, of the 3,700 fatal or injury-causing crashes investigated by the Colorado State Patrol in 2014, 17.2 percent were linked to speeding, 13 percent were linked to lane violations, and 6.6 percent were the result of failures to yield the right of way. Had drivers simply chosen to behave differently behind the wheel, lives would've been saved. 

This may seem pedantic, until you look at the data. According to research published in the December 2019 issue of Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, use of the word "accident" tends to shift blame to the victims of car crashes, and prevents people from thinking about these deaths and injuries in the context of a preventable public health challenge. Importantly, the study concludes, ridding our lexicon of the word "accident" has "the potential to save human lives and prevent injury on a large scale." That's significant, given that road traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for people aged between 1 and 54, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

That potential is why NHTSA hasn't used the word "accident" in its official communications since 1997, why Nevada lawmakers changed all statutory references from accident to crash in 2016, why the City of New York stopped using the "a-word" in 2014, and why the Associated Press Stylebook urges journalists to "avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible."

In the new year, Coloradans hoping to take this important first step in preventing traffic violence can sign the pledge at CrashNotAccident.com.

"When a plane crashes, we don't call it an 'accident' – in large part because we demand answers, and that it doesn't happen again," said Skyler McKinley, director of public affairs for AAA Colorado. "In 2021, let's change our language to reflect the fact that car crashes aren't something that just happen. They're something we control. They're a problem we can solve. Accidents happen, but most crashes don't have to."

About AAA – The Auto Club Group

AAA Colorado is a proud part of The Auto Club Group (ACG), the second-largest AAA club in North America with more than 14 million members across 14 U.S. states, the province of Quebec and two U.S. territories. ACG and its affiliates provide members with roadside assistance, insurance products, banking and financial services, travel offerings and more. ACG belongs to the national AAA federation with more than 60 million members in the United States and Canada. AAA’s mission is to protect and advance freedom of mobility and improve traffic safety. For more information, get the AAA Mobile app, visit AAA.com, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Learn more.