Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There are no 'accidents' on our highways

~~Editor's Note~~
Reprinted Article
This is an article from Jim Kenzie's, The Driver's Seat, which appeared on-line February 23, 2010.
You can read the original article here.

One of the main advantages of a blog to me is that I can answer readers' e-mails and letters, and broadcast them to a wider audience.

It is also, as She Who Must Be Obeyed a.k.a. the Chancellor of the Exchequer notes, a way to get PAID for answering my e-mail, which otherwise I do for free!

BTW, I DO try to answer as many e-mails personally as I can; forgive me if I don't always succeed.

Anyway, a reader complained about my Carte Blanche in the print edition of Wheels recently on the sad death of Brendan Burke, son of Leafs' General Manager Brian Burke, which included a harangue against the use of the word 'accident' to describe car crashes.

The reader wrote:
Check your dictionary. If it was an unexpected event then it was an accident. If it was an unintended event the nit was an accident. If it was by chance or mishap, then it was an accident.
Most words in the English language have more than one meaning. You are entitled to your preference: an event without apparent cause, but other uses for the word should not be condemned.

To which I replied:English is an incredibly rich language, due at least in part - or so I am told - to the British Navy! England effectively ruled the world for several centuries, and its language benefited immensely from contributions from several diverse sources.

So we have many words available to us to describe various meanings or shades of meaning, and it is imperative, especially for professional communicators, to be as selective and precise as we can be.

As you say, we also have many words which have multiple meanings. In some cases, popular usage and context have given certain words specific connotations which we also must respect, whether we like them or not.

For example, your boss might be a cheerful, happy person, but in today's parlance, you might want to be careful about calling him 'gay', even if that is a technically correct way of describing his personality. Unless he or she is also 'gay' in the modern sense of that word; not that there's anything wrong with that.

Again, it is imperative that we choose words that do not come loaded with sub-textual meaning, lest our original intentions become muddied.

I do in fact check my dictionary frequently. As you may be able to tell already, words and their meanings are very important to me, as they should be to every writer. Words are even a major component of two of my main hobbies - I am a 'cryptic crossword' puzzle enthusiast, and one of my major tasks in my little rock 'n' roll band is making sure I get the lyrics correct, even for the songs on which the other guys sing lead!

I hope you would accept that the Oxford Dictionary is a reasonable arbiter in determining the meanings of words. Here's what the on-line version of Oxford has to say about 'accident':
1. an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally.
2. an incident that happens by chance or without apparent cause.
3. chance.

The first meaning seems to agree with your definition. But the other two meanings use the word "chance", which implies a sense of randomness to the incident. Definition 2 specifically mentions "without apparent cause", and that certainly does NOT apply to car crashes, which virtually always have definitive, predictable and largely preventable causes.

In other words (!) it is not merely the absence of intent which causes something to be labeled an "accident".

Consider the field of jurisprudence. There is a major distinction between 'murder' and 'involuntary manslaughter'. My understanding of the law (my father was a lawyer) is that 'intent' is a major differentiator. But the victim is still dead; a crime has been committed. You would not say that a death determined to be 'involuntary manslaughter' was an 'accident' solely because there was no 'intent' to kill the person. It did NOT happen by 'chance'; there WAS a cause.

There are also varying degrees of negligence in the law, some of which call for criminal punishment. Again, perhaps there was no 'intent' to commit a crime, but failure to take reasonable precautions also can impart guilt. Likewise in civil cases.

And so it is in virtually every car crash. There is either an action that WAS done by someone which caused the crash to occur, or an action that was NOT done, and the negligence in not doing so was what allowed the crash to happen.

Consider these two descriptions of a hypothetical traffic crash:

(1): Joe Schmoe, 40, was killed in a car accident last night. His car lost control and ran head-on into a minivan carrying a family of six. Schmoe and the six family members were all pronounced dead at the scene.

(2) Joe Schmoe, 40, was killed last night when the Mississauga resident, whose Blood Alcohol Content was posthumously measured at 0.10 (0.08 is the legal limit) and who had not taken any advanced driver training, abandoned control of his car when it began to skid on a slippery corner.
The car ran head-on into a minivan carrying a family of six. Schmoe, who was not wearing his seat belt, was ejected from the car and died on impact. All six family members were also killed.

To me, and to virtually everyone in the traffic safety 'community' (speaking of connotations I don't like; to me, the word 'community' means people living in a geographically contiguous manner, but it has acquired a different sense in context...) the first description, notably the get-out-of-jail-free word "accident", implies that there was nothing Schmoe could have done to prevent these deaths.

True, he probably did not 'intend' to have a crash (we know a substantial percentage of fatal car crashes are suicides; we just don't know for sure how large that number is...).

But when you study the statistics, you can only conclude that Schmoe did NOT do at least one thing he could have done - learn how to drive! - to prevent the collision from happening at all; and he DID at least two things that increased the chances of it being fatal, both to himself and to the innocent victims - driving drunk, and not wearing his seat belt.

I will allow that it was by 'chance' that the minivan was involved in the crash. But without the actions taken and not taken by Schmoe, there would not have been a crash in the first place; the crash DID have a cause or causes, and hence can hardly be considered an 'accident'.

The reason we in said 'traffic safety community' rail against the 'A'-word is because it tends to let the Schmoes of the world off the hook.

Why use a word like 'accident' which adds nothing to the description of the event except a sense that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent the event, when words like 'crash' or 'collision' simply describe the event, without imparting either guilt or innocence to anyone?

That is why we are trying to eliminate the 'A'-word from media car crash descriptions.

Is this just another example of political correctness running wild?


But words ARE important, and we believe it is critical that we use the most accurate words we can, to make sure the full meaning of what we are trying to communicate is in fact communicated.


After the Wheels column which initiated this discussion appeared, Number One Daughter noticed a report on a fatal traffic crash in the Scarborough Mirror (one of The Star's sister company Metroland's titles) which did in fact use 'crash', not the 'A'-word, and also mentioned that the investigating police officers had not yet determined if the victims had been wearing their seat belts.

Maybe the timing of this story and my column was sheer coincidence, but at least the reporter at

The Mirror was asking the right questions.

Good on him.

I hope all media people - print, broadcast, narrow-cast, new media, whatever - will follow suit.

~~Editor's Note~~
I completely agree with Mr. Kenzie on this issue. The use of the word accident has done a terrible disservice to all of us, creating a "cop-out" mentality view of collisions. "Accident" and "not-at-fault" have minimized the liability and responsibility issues associated with collisions.

What's your thoughts? Let us know.


  1. I think it's REAL obvious what we all think over at our site.
    Great piece. Good on Jim for 'owning the podium' on this.
    Journalists sometimes don't realize how large their proverbial soapbox really is. Hopefully he's convinced some of the masses.

  2. Great article! Some of us, who like and appreciate words, know how regrettably inadeqate words are to express precise thoughts.

    Barring mechanical/electronics malfunctions or unforeseeable human emergencies (like a heartattack), there should never be an "accident" on highways.

    There are only a handful of simple rules, like keeping your distance, signalling your intention, not doing any sudden maneuvers, keeping safe (and legal) speed limits, which, if kept, should prevent any "accidents".

    By the way: about the only thing worse to read than an "accident", is a "spectacular accident". What journalists wouldn't write to sell papers?