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This year, save lives by changing how you talk about tragedies

AURORA, Ill., (January 26, 2021) – As we close out January, have a few New Year's Resolutions already gone to the wayside? If you are looking for an easy-to-stick-to 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. For example, 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.

In 2020 the Illinois State Police reported:

  • 13,029 crashes were due to improper lane usage. This is when a driver has failed to properly stay within their lane or is weaving within their lane in an unsafe manner.
  • 7,538 crashes were due to speeding. Speeding can be deadly and increases crash severity, as crash energy increases with speed. People often drive faster than the speed and our AAA Foundation's Traffic Safety Culture Index finds that a large proportion of drivers confess to exceeding posted speed limits.

  • 1,720 crashes were due to failing to yield. The purpose of right-of-way laws is to prevent conflicts resulting from one driver failing to yield and give right of way to another. All drivers are required to exercise due care to avoid a collision, and whoever has the last clear chance to avoid a collision has an obligation to do so.

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."

As we kick off the new year, Illinoisans 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 Molly Hart, spokesperson for AAA – The Auto Club Group. "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."

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