Don’t Call It an Accident

Even as desensitized as our culture has become to vehicular violence, the tragedy of February 22nd, 2015 is a tough one to stomach. That day, three children—ages 4,5, and 8—were run down while crossing a street in Springfield. They were crossing legally, in a crosswalk, with the signal. The driver of the car that killed them had a simple explanation: “I didn’t see any red light. What happened was an accident.” In declining to press charges, Lane County’s DA agreed that the driver “unwittingly ran a red light.” And on Monday, the Oregonian’s Editorial Board joined the exonerating cacophony with a piece entitled “When a tragic accident is just a tragic accident,” in which they declared that “‘accident’ is the only way to accurately describe what happened at that intersection on Feb. 22.”

No, it is not.

To be fair to the O, this sort of misuse of the word ‘accident’ dates all the way to the 15th Century: “As the medieval world had few scientific tools to investigate causation, it was not surprising that the word eventually associated itself with the phrase act of God.” A century ago, a young automobile industry in the process of inventing the concept of jaywalking co-opted it to blunt public perception of collisions, and over time the act of driving—and the act of crashing along with it—were normalized. Experts have been calling for a change in terminology since at least 1997, yet use of the word stubbornly persists in the media (just look at that article on jaywalking!).

Defenders of the term ‘accident’ often argue that the word applies for reasons of intent. Since nobody drives with an explicit desire to harm people or property, a word that denotes the opposite of ‘purposeful’ seems to fit the bill. But this ignores the fact that the very behaviors most likely to lead to crashes—driving drunk, distracted, or too fast for conditions, to name a few—are very much conscious decisions. Calling the end result of an ill-considered choice an ‘accident’  ignores the prologue, substituting a clear implication of blamelessness. It’s a biased, erroneous description.

Another sneakier limitation of the ‘a’ word is that, unlike ‘crash,’ the word ‘accident’ does not readily do double duty as a verb. You cannot accident into a tree. Thus a writer preferring the term ‘accident’ is tricked into using a passive voice, which often has the curious consequence of personifying a vehicle. In describing a different “accident” in which a woman “was struck and seriously injured by a car,” The O reports that, “the vehicle that hit her was moving west on Division, weaving in and out of traffic…It swerved toward Davis and struck her, then continued over a curb and through a grassy area before stopping.” The driver, though huffing laughing gas at the time, is relegated to the role of a mere accessory.

While I don’t believe that running a red light without even slowing can ever be unavoidable, the culpability in the Springfield crash is not on the driver alone. The generations-long approach to transportation and land use that has favored automobility over all other factors is a clear cause as well. This is what forced a family to cross a five-lane stroad so unironically called Main Street in the course of walking between their home and the ice cream parlor. Further, it rendered a 68-year-old man with apparent medical conditions dependant upon a car he could no longer safely drive. This, too, is no accident. It is a flawed approach to engineering and planning that we must hasten to abandon.

‘Accident’ is an inherently weak word; it is an excuse and a conversation ender rolled into one. When we declare something an accident, we throw up our hands and plead ignorance. We can neither understand it nor learn from it; it was unavoidable, unpreventable, and thus not worth fretting much over. Accidents happen, as they say.

What killed Tyler Hudson, McKenzie Hudson, and John Day on an Oregon street was no accident. It was an entirely unsurprising outcome of a century’s worth of systemic prioritization of cars over cities, of travel time over lives. Insofar as language shapes perception, describing their death using such an inaccurate, inarticulate word is perpetuating the very systems that make tragedies like it anything but accidents.

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