A victory for victims of vehicular collisions and their family members was achieved this week when the AP Stylebook announced a change to how reporters should describe a car collision, urging them to use the term “crash” rather than “accident”. In a court room or legal document, words have to be painstakingly precise, so it stands to reason that when it comes to life and death issues, journalists and reporters should also be explicit in order to convey accurate information. Activists behind “Vision Zero” the campaign to erradicate traffic related fatalities, pushed to expunge the word accident , in the event negligence is or could be present, where car crashes are discussed in the media. Those that challenge “accident” as the appropriate word believe that it unnecessarily lifts the onus off of a liable party in a car collision. A brief exploration of the word “accident” when it comes to traffic collisions reveals historic, semantic and even psychological roots to the word in our lexicon, but it could become obsolete, and many would be pleased to see it go.
The first recorded car crash happened in 1891 in the state of Ohio. The facts of the incident were that a car with a driver and one passenger drove over a tree root, and then crashed into a hitching post, and, by modern standards most people would describe it as an “accident”, due to the seeming inevitability of the events. The many car crashes that were seen in the early days of automobiles, and their apparent unavoidability, illustrate why “accident” maintains such a tight grip on us when discussing traffic collisions. Other factors at play, such as road and climate conditions, vehicle malfunctions, etc., have always been seen as influential components in crashes. Since 1891 however, many of these factors have been improved or accounted for, through engineering and modern technology, and of course the Vehicle Code. While “accident” allows car crashes to continue to appear unavoidable, in many cases that’s not necessarily true. But now consider the alternative: admitting that a tragic occurrence that resulted in property damage, inury or even death was foretold by the liable party or parties, and they proceeded with their reckless acts anyway. Some make the argument that we have to participate in some mental gymnastics when we get behind the wheel, because the potential losses that could be caused by something as dangerous as a motor vehicle are so significant.
Because our lives are subject to many hazards that we would prefer to circumnavigate but seem unavoidable, and also because we would prefer to judge actions on the basis of their intention, are some possible explanations for why a preference arose for the word “accident” to describe a tragic event like a fatal car wreck. There are some who would argue that a bad decision with no ill-intent should not be considered sufficient to supplant the word accident with crash. Although it’s entirely understandable why someone would take this view, that is not how a situation may be viewed in the eyes of the law. When the direct actions of the operator of a motor vehicle lead to severe injury or death, significant penalties apply even without intent. A fatality with the absence of intent is known as manslaughter. A charge of vehicular manslaughter is based on the driver’s negligence and not any intent to cause harm.
Who is liable when a car crash occurs and how is it determined?
CA Vehicle Code Sec 17150 states:
“Every owner of a motor vehicle is liable and responsible for death or
injury to person or property resulting from a negligent or wrongful act
or omission in the operation of the motor vehicle, in the business of the
owner or otherwise, by any person using or operating the same with the
permission, express or implied, of the owner."
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of a “negligent or wrongful act or omission
in the operation” when it comes to automobile collisions - in many if not most crashes
we see negligence by at least one party. Negligence is a legal term that implies that there were precautions a driver could have taken, that he or she did not, which would
have prevented the collision. Therefore, as Vision Zero activists would argue, if
negligence is evident, the word “accident” is misleading: it does not accurately describe
a situation where a party or parties failed to meet their obligations as a driver
and/or owner of a vehicle.
That being said, there can be occasions when an accident is just that – in order to be seen as such however, both drivers must be cleared of any fault, so you can imagine these circumstances are exceedingly rare. These events are what’s known as subject to an Act of G-d, which, in order to prove, must entail that predicting the event would have been impossible.
Ultimately, what the “Crash not Accident” movement illustrates, and what the traffic laws and regulations confirm, is that a sizable responsibility rests with everyone who operates a motor vehicle, to take every possible precaution in order to avoid being involved in a collision. When it comes to being a licensed driver and car-owner, it’s not at all bad practice to subscribe to the adage “There are no accidents.”