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Crashes Caused by Negligence Are Still Accidents

The movement to stop calling car crashes "accidents" blurs an important distinction.

Jeff LarasonJeff LarasonJeff Larason, the Massachusetts highway safety director, wants journalists and public officials to stop calling car crashes "accidents," because he thinks that term lets drunk, drugged, or otherwise negligent drivers off the hook. Larason, who promotes this message through a blog and a Twitter account called "Drop the 'A' Word," recently scolded me for using the words collision, crash, and accident interchangeably in a blog post about marijuana and driving. "Drugged crashes are not 'accidents,'" he tweeted, noting that the Associated Press (in response to lobbying by Larason and his allies) now recommends that "when negligence is claimed or proven," reporters should "avoid accident, which can be read as exonerating the person responsible."

No doubt the word can be read that way, but that is not what the word means. It means only that a crash was unintentional, not that it was unavoidable or did not involve negligence.

Larason selectively quotes dictionary definitions of accident to make his case. "On Facebook," The New York Times notes, "he posted a Merriam-Webster definition that describes accident as 'an unexpected happening' that 'is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured.'" But it's clear from the full Merriam-Webster definition that accidents involving negligence are still accidents:

1 a: an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance

   b: lack of intention or necessity: chance <met by accident rather than by design> 

2 a: an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance

   b: an unexpected and medically important bodily event especially when injurious <a cerebrovascular accident>

   c: an unexpected happening causing loss or injury which is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured but for which legal relief may be sought

   d: used euphemistically to refer to an involuntary act or instance of urination or defecation

3 a nonessential property or quality of an entity or circumstance <the accident of nationality>

Note that definition 2(c), the part quoted by Larason, refers to an incident where the injured party is not at fault "but for which legal relief may be sought," meaning that someone else is (at least arguably) at fault, as when a pedestrian slips on an icy sidewalk that a property owner was supposed to keep clear. So even the definition Larason prefers does not support his claim that "drugged crashes are not 'accidents.'" Definition 2(a)—"an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance"—obviously does not help him either. Neither do definitions 1(a) and 1(b), which hinge on whether the event was foreseen, planned, intended, or necessary.

"We hear a lot from reporters who defend use of the word 'accident' by saying that no one crashes intentionally," Larason writes in a blog post. "But let's look at the definition." In that post he focuses on the top result you get when you Google "accident definition":

ac·ci·dent

1. 
an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.

2. 
an event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause.

Larason argues that "drunk, drugged, negligent, and criminal driving crashes are not unexpected." While "a driver may not intend to crash," he says, "the resulting crashes, and the tragic results, are wholly predictable." At a macro level, yes, but the point is that the driver does not expect or intend to crash. By Larason's logic, when an elderly woman falls in the shower and breaks her hip, that is not an accident either, because it is "wholly predictable" that elderly women who take showers will fall and break their hips.

Larason also argues, referring to definition 2, that "the causes of most crashes are apparent," since "there is little doubt when a driver is drunk, drugged, distracted and/or speeding as to the cause." But lack of an apparent cause is not a necessary part of definition 2, which applies to an event that happens by chance, an event that has no apparent cause, or an event that was not deliberately caused.

No matter how much Larason pushes his own idiosyncratic definition of accident, it makes perfect sense to talk about accidents caused by motorists who speed, recklessly change lanes, text while they're driving, fall asleep at the wheel, or drive while impaired by alcohol or other drugs. By contrast, it does not make sense to talk about accidents caused by drivers who deliberately run down pedestrians or commit suicide by crashing into brick walls.

Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, agrees with Larason that accident should be replaced by crash. "When you use the word 'accident,'" he told the Times, "it's like, 'God made it happen.'"

Maybe Rosekind and I have fundamentally different worldviews, because when I hear accident, I think, "Somebody screwed up." Often the screwup is clear enough that one driver is deemed to be at fault, in which case his insurer covers the damage. Sometimes the screwup gives rise to a lawsuit, which may or may not be successful at pinning the blame on one party. And sometimes the screwup is reckless enough (or the consequences serious enough) that it's treated as a crime. Even then, however, the defendant is charged not with purposely causing a crash but with intentionally doing something (such as getting drunk) that increased the odds of a crash.

I realize that some readers, including relatives of people killed in crashes caused by reckless drivers, see accident as an inadequate or even offensive description of such an incident. It is nevertheless an accurate description, and insisting otherwise obscures the important distinction between hurting people on purpose and hurting them unintentionally.

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  • uunderstand||

    It is easy to see that people doing stupid things in cars, mostly not paying attention, will be involved in a crash. Since unforeseen or unexpected is the first thing which comes up in these definitions, the results aren't accidents. The best term is wreck. A wreck occurred. Blame assignment is a separate matter.

  • B. Woodrow Chippenhaus||

    It is easy to see that people doing stupid things in cars, mostly not paying attention, will be involved in a crash.

    Perhaps they will eventually be involved in a crash, but you can't say with certainty that every time someone is 'doing stupid things' behind the wheel they will be involved in a crash. The likelihood is higher, but that's all you can say with certainty. Ergo, any crash is still unexpected, certainly from the driver's standpoint, so it meets the definition of accident.

  • Pat (PM)||

    Perhaps they will eventually be involved in a crash, but you can't say with certainty that every time someone is 'doing stupid things' behind the wheel they will be involved in a crash.

    This important distinction is why we continue issuing driver licenses to women and Asians.

    (it's a joke, deal with it)

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    It's interesting how culture shapes perception. My wife hates bona fide misogynists with a white hot passion, yet she is the only one in our relationship that makes comments about [bad] female and Asian drivers. I view bad drivers on an individual basis, but god damn does US culture need to smoke a bowl and chill the hell out.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Have you been reading the comments or something? This sounds like an installment of one of our perrenial grammatical and lexical debates.

  • ||

    oddly, i feel safer.

    What other A words should be banished?

  • UnCivilServant||

    Australia. We'll just have to call it Antipode.

  • ||

    nah, just call it Straya as we locals do

  • ||

    Atrump.

  • Anarcho-Woodchipper||

    Ado... oh forget it

  • Pat (PM)||

    I thought "accident" referred to an unplanned pregnancy.

    Then again, people who don't abort in that situation often prefer to call the resultant child a "surprise". Maybe we could use the same euphemism here and make everybody happy.

    "A driver traveling the wrong direction on a rural highway and later revealed to have a BAC of .15 was involved in a traffic surprise."

  • UnCivilServant||

    "A driver traveling the wrong direction on a rural highway and later revealed to have a BAC of .15 was involved in a traffic surprise."

    "Rural Highway"? Is that where someone actually bothered to pave and then painted a stripe down the middle? Or do only the lucky "Rural highways" gets stripes?

  • Pat (PM)||

    "Rural Highway"? Is that where someone actually bothered to pave and then painted a stripe down the middle? Or do only the lucky "Rural highways" gets stripes?

    Possibly relevant.

  • Brochettaward||

    He's pushing propaganda. Some of which is already enshrined into law. The nonsense where if you have any alcohol in you, you are automatically at fault even if the other person had like ten infractions of their own that caused the accident. It's a complete fallacy. Intoxication actually does not make an accident probable or likely. It marginally increases the likelihood of something bad happening, yet the odds are still small and it is still entirely possible to be drunk and not at fault for an accident.

    Most drunk drivers make it home just fine with no one else being aware. The vast majority of such cases do so. So, there's nothing actually 'foreseeable' about the outcome. This isn't an argument that driving while drunk shouldn't be illegal, but against the twisted logic applied to such cases and the way activists and government play with numbers to exaggerate risk.

    More over, treating intoxication this way makes no sense in the larger context of stupid shit people do while driving. Any distraction while driving increases the chances of an accident to some degree, yet the law does not treat most of these in the same way as intoxication. Nor does society.

  • Brochettaward||

    And yes this is a sour subject for me. It is still galling to me how much baby boomers and people slightly older than my generation or even members of my generation like to treat this subject. An awful lot of people are complete god damn hypocrites in this area but will starting preening the second it comes up. It's part of a larger trend of criminalizing things that were dealt with mildly and often more intelligently before.

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    I am not old enough to have first-hand experienced the days when sober driving with an open container used to be "a thing" in the U.S. The last vestige I recall was some segment on The Daily Show 15-20 years ago about drive-through daiquiri establishments in Louisiana before they were ultimately phased out. (Fact check Suthenboy?)

    And seriously, open container laws for pedestrians are puritanical and stupid. What the fuck is up with that? I grew up used to viewing the drinking of an open beer whilst standing on a sidewalk as a no-no, yet every time I go to Hong Kong or so many other places, nobody gives a flying fuck whether my drink is a soda or a tallboy.

  • Lee G||

    I imagine the restaurant and bar industry had something to do with the open-container laws for non-drivers. They'd rather keep you in the building buying overpriced drinks than picking up a six-pack from 7-11.

  • Brochettaward||

    They still have drive-thru daiquiri places in some states. Texas has them, for instance. I'm not sure what the legal framework is there.

  • ||

    We (Louisiana) have them. When you receive your daiquiri the top half of the straw still has the paper on it. If you take that paper off while in the vehicle you have an open container in violation of the open container law. You are supposed to get your daiquiri and drive home before drinking any.

    Also, with regards to the article's subject: Remember the case of the cop who was texting on his phone while flying down the interstate well over the speed limit, lost control and killed some teenage girl? I think it is possible to use the word 'accident' without absolving someone of criminal liability. Sullum is correct and Larason's campaign is pointless.

  • The Laissez-Ferret||

    When I was a kid (early-mid 80s), my dad would drink a beer or two on long trips. It was illegal so he'd wrap his can with some plastic meant to look like a Coke can (people of a certain age on here will remember these) and he never had a accident. That and his neverending chainsmoking of Winstons were probably what kept him sane while driving my family to vacation. Amazing to think that my parents smoked in my presence and drank in moderation while driving and yet I'm still alive and not hooked up to an iron lung.

  • Pat (PM)||

    Any distraction while driving increases the chances of an accident to some degree, yet the law does not treat most of these in the same way as intoxication.

    They're working on it.

  • Robert||

    One bit of paradox is that if you're taking downers & driving, whether that's legal or not depends on whether you're epileptic. You're impaired to the same degree either way, but in 1 case you're less impaired than otherwise, while in the other you're more. So it's based on relative rather than absolute impairment.

  • Lee G||

    It is propaganda. It's puritanical bullshit.

    It's a race to criminalize everything.

  • UnCivilServant||

    *Bzzt* "Lee G, you have been fined one hundred credits for violation of the verbal morality statute."

  • Lee G||

    UCS, you talk like a fag and your shit's all retarded.

  • UnCivilServant||

    *Bzzt* "Lee G, you have been fined three hundred credits for violations of the verbal morality statute."

    The machine on the wall is going to keep printing out tickets, Lee.

  • Lee G||

    Do those tickets come with extra big-ass fries?

  • ||

    You keep crossing those streams and the whole damn world is gonna go to shit.

  • ||

    The machine on the wall is going to keep printing out tickets, Lee

    Good, send it to Venezuela. I understand they have a toilet paper shortage....

  • UnCivilServant||

    We sent them the packs of seashells instead.

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    Chortle

  • AlgerHiss||

    "Most drunk drivers make it home just fine with no one else being aware."

    This truism will never be acknowledged by MADD, or cops (especially the silly-hatted “state trooper” crowd).

    To even insinuate mildly that the vast majority of people that drink and drive do not cause any harm, might be enough to get yourself charged with felony truth-telling.

  • sarcasmic||

    The nonsense where if you have any alcohol in you, you are automatically at fault even if the other person had like ten infractions of their own that caused the accident.

    As someone who got charged with DUI on a bicycle after getting hit by a car that ran a red light, driven by a teenager on his learning permit with a carload of friends, I know this all too well.

  • UnCivilServant||

    serves you right for riding a bicycle.

  • Glide||

    Cyclist from the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video, is that you?

  • sarcasmic||

    No. I was a 20-something in Boulder using it for transportation since I couldn't afford a car at the time.

  • Libertarian||

    This discussion reminds me a bit of the current situation in Venezuela: an unforeseeable catastrophe due to bad luck.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Didn't you hear, it was the United States that caused Venezuela to spiral into an economic black hole that might well lead to famine and cannibalism.

  • ||

    You would say that; no doubt you have relatives who are Self-Driving Cars....

  • ||

    bloody hell Doc you're back!

  • Pompey (91% LOLLOLZ)||

    Jacob Sullum, you are a consistent treasure. Your articles alone would be worth a subscription. *mancrush*

  • Chip||

    A similar debate exists in the world of firearms regarding the unintentional firing of a gun, with the terms "accidental discharge" and "negligent discharge" being the two terms in question.

    I agree with this blog post --

    http://www.vuurwapenblog.com/r.....ischarges/

    -- in which the author essentially suggests that "accidental discharge" means a mechanical failure/malfunction of the firearm itself, and a "negligent discharge" is something involving a misstep by the operator of the firearm. The media seems to prefer the term "accident" when referring to unintentional firearm discharges. Of course, the media also says "the gun went off" as if it magically fired itself, which is almost never the case.

  • Zeb||

    I would consider negligent discharges a subset of accidental discharges.

    But if you just want to communicate something, it doesn't really matter. Just explain what you mean by "accident". In law you are going to need well defined terms, so define the terms in the statute.

  • invisible finger||

    Larason doesn't want to be the safety director, he wants to be a goddamned authoritarian. He can go fuck himself and jizz allover his bullshit dictionary.

  • Robert||

    This is saying that any time someone has any influence on the outcome of events, it's no accident. Then truly there are no accidents where any component of human action was involved.

    I'm afraid this is also conflating situations in which an outcome is more likely than it would have been otherwise, given some human action, with those where the outcome is more likely than not. You can do something that raises the chance of an occurrence from 1% to 1.5%, but that's distinct from raising it to 51%.

  • IceTrey||

    "Accident implies there's no one to blame".

    Nicholas Angel "Hot Fuzz"

  • Unreconstructed (Sans Flag)||

    Took long enough to get to this!

  • Bob Straub||

    Given that there is a God, then if "God made it happen" it would be deliberate, and not an accident, wouldn't it?.

  • Dallas H.||

    If a person is driving they are bound to make a mistake because they are imperfect. This is completely foreseeable. Therefore, there can be no auto accidents ever.

    Sounds legit.

  • Think It Through||

    It was actually an eminent ER trauma surgeon who introduced me to this concept many years ago. He said, of the car crashes that brought people to his ER, "I never call them accidents, because you never know. Car crash is accurate." He wasn't thinking of pinning negligence on someone -- he was thinking of actual intentional crashes being no accident. Without the precise facts and knowledge of the intent of all parties, we do never know. I have no problem with rigorous precision in language because it's the opposite approach -- loose language like "rape" meaning anything a college SJW wants it to mean nowadays -- that is more the problem.

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