Should we Call them Road ‘Accidents’ or ‘Crashes’? It’s Actually an Important Distinction!

The incidents which generations of people have grown up calling “road accidents” or “highway accidents” are wrongly named — they need to be referred to as crashes or collisions — but if this sounds like nothing more than silly word-play and semantics to you, read on, because there is a very important reason behind it.

Photo of an SUV in Florida narrowly avoiding a collision with a semi tractor-trailer that rightlytly had to go wide in order to make a sharp right turn and which had been signalling the intended turn correctly for plenty of time. Classic unattentive driving by the person in the SUV.
The driver in this SUV in Florida brakes hard and narrowly avoids a collision with a semi tractor-trailer that correctly had to go wide in order to make a sharp right turn and which had been signalling the intended turn for plenty of time. Sadly, this was classic and potentially lethal inattentive driving by the person in the SUV.   (Copyright image.)   [1]
This recommendation that people — especially the media — stop calling crashes “accidents” is by no means our idea at Advanced Drivers of North America [ADoNA], but for reasons that I will explain below, we do wholeheartedly support it.

The push to get people to change their wording from “accidents” to either crashes or collisions started in the field of medicine, back in the late 1970s, and has grown steadily since then. [2]

… No more pretence that anything but a tiny minority of crashes are unavoidable, blameless “accidents!”

There are two key reasons for also using this approach specifically in terms of driving, and they are:

  • To get the bulk of the public to realize that aggressive, selfish, distracted, lazy or inept driving are a massive part of the cause of road crashes, injuries and deaths, and that this is simply unacceptable from the drivers concerned;
  • To get drivers to grasp that if they inexcusably cause serious injuries or worse, because of incompetent or unacceptable driving, they will at the very least be punished for it and will also lose respect from everyone around them — as has increasingly become the case for drunk-drivers over the years. (And this, in turn, would benefit greatly from more proactive enforcement — preferably without any need for a complaint, just a law enforcement officer’s own appraisal — and more effective work by the courts.)

In short, it is our attitude to crashes and all of the resultant harm that needs to improve, so this suggested change of wording is an important part of creating that change.

No more empty excuses — either given or accepted!  No more pretence that anything but a tiny minority of crashes are unavoidable, blameless “accidents!”

Photograph of a car that has just been in a collision. The airbags have inflated but are now in the process of deflating, and the car's two occupants are still in their seats, stunned.
This photo was taken no more than 2 seconds after the collision that triggered the airbags, which are now in the process of deflating.   The driver (whose dark blue shirt sleeve you can see)  and his passenger are still in the car, arguing!   Possibly through distraction, the car driver had just collided with the back of a stationary truck — not an “accident,”  an act of negligence;  a collision.    Copyright image.

The first stage in my own career in Traffic Safety was as a traffic patrol police officer — more recently known as a roads policing officer — in Britain. That is naturally a job in which one attends and investigates many serious crashes and then starts to gain great insight in that particular aspect of road safety.

For my own part, I found three specific parts of the job to be emotionally challenging, and I know it was the same for many if not all of my colleagues.  The obvious one of these was dealing with people who one minute had been having a normal day and the next minute were mutilated or dead, often in a visibly very brutal manner — especially, it must be said, if the victims were young people.

“It wasn’t my fault, officer.  It was an accident!”

Worse than this, however,  was having to visit the next of kin — which we always did in person, never by phone God forbid — to tell them that one or more loved members of their family had been killed.  This was a horrendous task that rather obviously never gets any easier.

But the third issue that used to bother me greatly were drivers who even at that pre-investigation stage appeared to be potentially responsible for causing the death/s and injuries who, when asked what had happened, would quickly say words to the effect that “It wasn’t my fault, officer.  It was an accident!

[The word] “accident” conveys a sense that the losses are due exclusively to fate. Perhaps this is what gives “accident” its most potent appeal – the sense that it exonerates participants from responsibility. [3]

Often, though, the full investigation — which could take many weeks to complete — would show that the drivers who had been so quick to deny any responsibility were in fact guilty of serious wrongdoings or omissions and had indeed caused or partially caused the crash and the casualties.

The fact is, however, that the vast majority of crashes are avoidable because — for just one of multiple reasons — here in the USA, 94 percent of crashes include driver error as one of the causing factors.  [4]

Remove the driver error and there’s a very good chance that the crash will be avoided.

So there’s a very sobering thought:  If everybody drove well (as most people will try to tell you that they already do), then up to 19 out of every 20 crashes could be avoided, 19 out of every 20 road crash injuries could be avoided, and most important of all, 19 out of every 20 highway deaths could be avoided.  Based on the most recent figures available [i.e. 2016] at the time of writing this article, this would represent 35,530 American lives saved every single year, and the annual death toll cut from an outrageous 37,400 a year to “just” 1,870, which would be fantastic but still 1,870 too many.

Photo of a car that has been skidded off I-90 onto the median.
A car that has been spun off the I-90 Interstate, onto the median, undoubtedly through excessive speed for the conditions. More people will now be put in danger during the recovery of this vehicle.  (Copyright image.)

From Australia, there is an excellent and globally relevant video about how many road deaths would be an “acceptable” number in any country.

In very recent years, several American States have set themselves the goal of completely eradicating road deaths, typically by the year 2030.

This is a very laudable and important thing to do — challenging targets are vital in road safety.  But sadly, for decades, the USA has performed far less successfully in highway safety than any other developed nation [5], so achieving what is internationally known as Target Zero within the next 12 years would seem to be more than a little unlikely, even with the dawning of the age of semi-autonomous and even fully “self-driving” vehicles.  None-the-less, aiming for that priceless goal will definitely be a great help.

Photograph of the scene of a fatal road crash in the USA.
A fatal road traffic crash (not “accident”) which I came across by chance during my travels in the USA.  The yellow object, lying on the road, should sadly be obvious.   Copyright image.

Now, let’s not get this wrong.  There are literally dozens of factors that can contribute to the cause of a bad crash, and very rarely is just one factor solely responsible, but the fact that remains is if we take away the driver error, the other factors present in any particular incident are much less likely to result in a crash.

Some experts have said that blaming drivers for crashes is simply wrong, but as just one counterpoint, this argument ignores differences in crash and casualty rates between countries with good standards and in-depth driver training with those that have poor standards or give people inadequate or inaccurate information or training.

The most important thing for increased personal ability in avoiding crashes is for the driver to be using a time- and research-proven, systematic method of driving, including among many other aspects, good observations, appropriate speeds, and safe following distances.

At Advanced Drivers of North America [ADoNA] we are unique in the USA in teaching what is known either as the System of Car Control (although it works perfectly for any type of road-going vehicle, not just cars), or “I.P.S.G.A.”, which abbreviation we explain to all trainees.  This training is suitable for all work-related driving, whether it’s for your executives, sales fleet, delivery drivers or chauffeurs, so if maximum safety is your goal, please visit our Courses page for more insight into the training and from where you can contact us.

Footnotes & References
  1. ADoNA Webpage
  2. Excerpt:   Fifteen years ago [i.e. 1978] Doege argued in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine that it was time “for medicine to dispose of the idea of ‘accident’ and ‘accidental injury’.”  Others have also reasoned persuasively that the conceptual ambiguities encompassed in the word accident disqualify it from technical use, notwithstanding its near universal general use.  Yet its use in medical settings continues to mislead. “Accident” conveys a sense that the losses incurred are due to fate and are therefore devoid of rational explanation or predictability. Yet the motivation to study subjects like traffic safety is to discover factors that influence the likelihood of occurrence of, and resulting harm from, “crashes,” the preferred term. There are very few traffic related deaths for which the word crash is inappropriate (the minuscule fraction of deaths from drowning and fires not initiated by crashes). Some crashes are purposeful acts, including suicide56 and homicide, for which the word accident would be inappropriate even in popular use….   BMJ, 1993 Dec 4; 307(6917): 1438–1439  (at which go to Full Text and click on Full Article.  See ‘Medical accidents: no such thing?’)
  3. Excerpt:  “…[The word] accident conveys a sense that the losses are due exclusively to fate.  Perhaps this is what gives accident its most potent appeal — the sense that it exonerates participants from responsibility.  Accident also conveys a sense that losses are devoid of predictability…”  Evans L., Traffic Safety, ISBN 0-9754871-0-8, published by Science Serving Society; Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. 2004.
  4. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA]
  5. ADoNA: Latest Multi-National VMT Road Death Rates – USA Makes Least Progress 1990-2015

Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at: http://www.advanceddrivers.com/ceochief-instructors-resumecvbio/

18 thoughts on “Should we Call them Road ‘Accidents’ or ‘Crashes’? It’s Actually an Important Distinction!”

    1. Okay, Norman, but out of curiosity what situations would YOU class as a legitimate, blameless accident, in the context of this post?

  1. This argument for around for decades. It has served as something for safety experts to talk about, when they have nothing more concrete to suggest, and it has had no practical effect whatever. It is well understood what is meant by accident in the the road safety context, and nobody thinks they are unpreventable. There was a cogent journal article 10 or years ago (maybe Deborah Girasec) that put this silly issue to bed, or should have.

    1. Well, Larry, I admit that I am surprised by your attitude on this issue. I’m sure you are very aware of the effect of safety culture on the efficacy of road safety efforts in any country. Several countries have assiduously worked towards improving public attitude — safety culture — to specific driving situations and there can be no denying the successes that have been achieved. The British attitude towards drink-driving, for example, has been altered for the better — almost beyond recognition, in fact — over the same span of time as my own career in various aspects of traffic safety (i.e. since the early 1970s).

      Logically, therefore, it no doubt CAN be achieved that people’s attitude towards the frequent acts of negligence or even arrogance that contribute to road deaths can be improved, just as attitudes to other highway dangers have been improved, on which basis I therefore disagree with you entirely.

      I don’t think your comment on safety experts having nothing to better to talk about was aimed at me — nor, frankly, do I think it was appropriate unless such people can only discuss what you decree — but if perchance it was then I can assure you that this is just one topic of dozens that was in my ‘drafts’ file. The rest will take me many months to finalise, one at a time, over the next few months, and they will progressively be added to over 150 existing articles/posts that I’ve put on this website since the middle of last year (none other of which was about this topic).

      Thanks for your reply.

  2. I agree strongly that these incidents should be called ‘crashes’, not ‘accidents’. ‘Accident’ implies that the incident was unavoidable, unpredictable, and with no driver error causality. ‘Crash’ implies none of that and elicits no judgment against or in favour of any party involved – it is a non-emotive, factual noun. As such, this is the word that traffic reporters should be using. Using the same logic, cars should not be described as “going out of control”. Drivers lose control of their vehicles.

  3. It has been best practice in the trafdic safety scientific literature for over 20 years not to use the term accidents, which implies they were unavoidable. As a reviewer, I routinely make this correction. It is good that this article brings this point to the attention of a wider audience. Collisions or crashes are the correct terms.

  4. Sometimes there are crashes that a driver cannot avoid. But that doesn’t suggest that the crash itself is unavoidable. When someone suddenly crosses a center line on a two-lane road a crash may be unavoidable. While one driver is clearly at-fault it is seldom the case that both drivers share blame. Here we get into the multiple-cause theory. Was the stretch of roadway a known “blackspot” and could something have been done to re-engineer that stretch of road? If the drivers were not traveling at high speed could the occupants have only suffered minor injuries because of the crash-worthiness of the vehicles? Was the lane line crosser distracted by operating the radio or texting? If so, are there design issues that could reduce the likelihood of this sort of distraction?

    I’m sure that most readers of this post can think of several other issues. Many, many factors contribute to injuries to car occupants.

    1. Thanks, David. I agree with your points although, to be fair, I did write at the start of the article/post that there are indeed many other factors.

  5. I understand and largely agree with the use of crash rather than accident in this context.

    However in the large part of the international road safety field where the most severe road safety issues exist, English is a second language (even in the USA there are significant numbers where peoples’ cultural origin is other than English speaking).

    When English is not your first language This distinction between “accident” meaning without fault and “crash” meaning either with or without fault, is a distinction lost on most. Indeed those with English as a second language will mostly have already acquired the habit of using accident without any implication of fault or not. In fact if you look at a range of English dictionaries while the definition of “accident” as an incident without fault or just due to chance is given, they often also include the use of accident with respect to incidents where fault is included.

    Over the last 20 years I have mainly worked in the international field, almost always with hosts for whom English was a second language. Even so English is very often the prime language in which Road Safety is discussed not just in my presence. In this case the word “Accident” is used almost exclusively and the distinction with “crash” or “collision” rarely considered.

    Yes language is important but in my opinion there are other much more important issues. For instant the use of “cause” is too often used to imply that a “crash” has a single cause. Road Traffic Crashes/Collisions are MULTI-FACTORAL events. A crash does not have (or vanishingly rarely) a cause but will have number of causal factors. Sometimes it can be useful to refer to prime causal factors but it is positively misleading to refer to a (single)crash cause.

    I try to use “Crash/Collision” normally but do not worry too much about the the use of “Accident”. I am much more concerned about statements that a certain percentage of crashes are due to a particular cause. It is more correct that a percentage of crashes include a particular causal factor among other factors.

    1. Jim, I was never aiming my post to encompass the issue of languages, merely the principle of not facilitating a ready-made excuse to those who will readily use one.

      While I accept that in some languages there may be no parallel for the issue I have outlined, there undoubtedly will be similar situations in some others.

      For perspective, however, I would add that I’m not for one minute pretending this is a critical issue, but it is one for which we can all me mindful and promote it as and when the opportunity arises.

      Thanks for your reply.

  6. I know we have not seen eye to eye on the forums in the past but I entirely agree with you, that ‘accidents,’ is totally wrong and very rare, when I was an Adi, I always taught my clients not to refer to the word accident or ‘the fast lane’. Collision , and lanes 1, 2, 3, 4.
    or overtaking lane were more relevent. Moving on to IAM and Roadcraft, you may not agree, but I found when I passed the advanced test in 1976 it was an accolade to be proud of but then they started putting company drivers through the test and some, shall we say, did it because they were told too by the company they were employed by, and had no interest in becoming better drivers. So returmed to their old habits very soon afterwards. Although having said that, some good stuff would have been instilled and obviously they would at least be aware of the benefits and would to a certain extent reduce their likelyhood of being involved in a collision. Nevertheless, I still feel that the pride in passing the IAM test has to some extent, been diluted. I don’t know if you have driven in the UK recently but I find that manners and courtesy are a thing of the past and the attitude is one of, I can, so I will. I don’t know what the answer is but to just keep trying.

    1. David, I would suggest that the deterioration of applied driving skills, attitude and manners in Britain has much to do with the effective removal of traffic patrol police officers from UK roads — a disaster in more ways than one.

      On the subject of employees having to do advanced driving courses whether they like to or not, I think we all know that some drivers will never change and couldn’t care less about improving their driving skills. Indeed, employee drivers represent over 99 per cent of everyone we train at Advanced Drivers of North America and to this end we work very hard indeed to ‘engage’ those drivers by taking an approach that is designed to arouse their interest. I don’t pretend that we ‘get’ them all but it does help greatly.

      Thanks for your reply.

  7. I don’t suppose anyone above would be interested in an argument for retaining “accident”? It is quite important for those of us actually involved in accident reduction – and the substitution of collision has its dangers. We need to remember that in a road accident, NO collision may occur, or several, and that a crash is merely a noise, which may be heard, especially if the accident does involve a collision. There premises to my argument are presented here:
    https://files.acrobat.com/a/preview/54f0338e-a1f5-4915-8572-7b5d7463336b
    Truly advanced drivers will, I am sure, appreciate that, in an arena where human fallibility can lead to such serious consequences, the blame culture (manifested, I think, in the “collision” controversy) has no place.

    1. Andrew, thanks for your thoughts.

      To be fair, you appear to make a couple of assumptions that don’t meet the mark. Firstly, you write “[Retaining the word] ‘accident’ is quite important for those of us actually involved in accident reduction.” However, in one way or another, I have been involved in traffic safety and the reduction of crashes since 1974, and as you will gather if you read my full post, I disagree with you. Furthermore, in your linked article/paper you refer to the Road Traffic Act 1988 and yet roads policing officers and departments in England and Wales switched to using the phrase Road Traffic Crashes [RTCs], quite a few years ago. (I can’t speak for Scotland, although a glance at the Statista website would suggest that Scotland does indeed still use ‘accident’)

      Secondly, you also state “Truly advanced drivers will, I am sure, appreciate…” (etc.). This begs the question of what exactly do you mean by a ‘truly advanced driver’. I have searched carefully, over a period of at least 20 years, for any evidence of advanced driver training regimes/courses around the world that might match or exceed the duration and/or depth of British police advanced driver training, but I have found none that even come close. If it is ‘BritPol’ advanced driving to which you refer then I have to disappoint you because that is my own driving achievement and background. In addition, after my police/traffic years, I worked as a senior Approved Driving Instructor [ADI] in England and later ran an advanced driver training company there. Here in the USA, I own and run the company that owns this website and we have worked in 41 American states, 6 Canadian provinces and the Caribbean — always with our work underpinned by ‘Roadcraft’. I hope that meets what you meant in the context of being a truly advanced driver.

      If you were or still are UK TrafPol yourself, I’m a bit surprised you have not addressed the point I made in the original article about how drivers, following a crash even in which they may blatantly have been at fault, are prone to quickly and repeatedly bleating that it wasn’t their fault because it was an accident!

      In your paper — which I note is an update of an original year 2000 paper — you give the Chambers Dictionary definition of the word “accident” yet you merely dismiss the word “crash” as being a noise! (I smiled at that because I think I detect a touch of police sarcasm!) However, you did omit the Chambers definition that crash includes “the shock of two bodies meeting,” which of course is significantly more relevant than a mere noise.

      As for any ‘blame the driver mentality,’ that is not my own interest in this issue whatsoever. Since leaving ‘the job’, I have also worked as a qualified photographer and as an expert witness, commonly for the defence. My own interest is only that those who are truly guilty of an offence/infraction that caused harm to others should be penalised, never that people should be the victims of over-zealous prosecution.

      So, in closing this reply, I will go back to advanced driver training and tell you that because the safety culture is very different in the USA compared to the UK, we spell out to our clients and trainees the seriousness of lazy, negligent or downright aggressive driving (in somewhat gentler words than that) and to help achieve any possible nudge-for-the-better in their understanding, we make it clear that crashes are not accidents that just happen, and that 94% [NHTSA figure] of all crashes involve driver error, so our goal is to help them, as individuals, reduce their own chance of becoming a victim of a crash or, indeed, a possible killer. It’s not for blame after the event, it is for awareness and deterence before any potential event.

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