Even When a Driver Intentionally Causes Mayhem, Media Call It an “Accident”

A witness described seeing the driver of this Prius back up intentional over the other car, but CBS LA improperly persisted in referring to this as an "accident." Image: CBS LA
A witness described seeing the driver of this Prius intentionally back up over the other car, but CBS LA persisted in referring to it as an “accident.” Image: CBS LA

The New York Police Department stopped using the term “accident” to refer to car collisions because it conveys the “connotation that there is no fault or liability.” In the press, however, “accident” remains standard practice, even when a driver rams another person on purpose.

The Safe Roads Alliance, an organization that promotes safe driving, tracked down five examples just from the last few weeks where media outlets referred to intentional collisions as “accidents” (the reports also tend to say the crashes were perpetrated by vehicles, not the human beings who drive them). Here are the pieces they sent along, with the headline that ran with each story.

Seattle Times: “Road Rage Incident Leaves 1 Dead on I-5”

According to the Seattle Times, the driver of a Chevy SUV pulled in front of the driver of Dodge Neon on I-5, apparently enraged at his slow speed. The SUV driver proceeded to “brake check,” causing the collision. A 23-year-old passenger in the Neon was killed, and three others were injured. Both drivers are being charged with vehicular homicide, and yet the Seattle Times goes on to say: “The State Patrol is seeking information regarding the accident.”

WHIO: “I-70 Crash: Wrong-Way Driver Had a Criminal Past”

A 35-year driver was killed after going the wrong way on an Ohio freeway and colliding with a semi-truck. A witness to the crash reported the driver, Chris A. Coleman, appeared bent on suicide, speeding through a U-turn in the highway median and then driving into the path of the semi. Nevertheless, WHIO twice refers to the collision as an “accident” in its report.

CBC News North: “Whitehorse Police Seek Driver Involved in ‘Road Rage’ Collision”

The original report from the Canadian Broadcasting Company referred to a hit-and-run road-rage collision as an “accident.” The crash apparently followed a verbal altercation and short chase, and was the result of brake-checking. After a commenter objected to the use of the word “accident,” the language has since been changed on this one, so good on the CBC.

CBS Los Angeles: “Did Road Rage Lead to Prius Piggybacking Another Car?”

This article, about the collision shown above, includes testimony from a witness saying the Prius driver intentionally backed over the other car. That person is referred to as “a witness to the accident.”

Aspen Daily News: “Murder Suspect May Have Tried to Kill Himself in Car Accident”

Pin this one on the headline writer. Arturo Navarrete-Portillo was badly injured in a wreck in mid-February. Reports about the incident unsealed this week revealed that Navarrete-Portillo had essentially admitted that he intentionally tried to harm himself in the crash, according to the Aspen Daily News. Still, the news outlet call it an “accident.”

  • I cannot even fathom how a Prius could back up over another car. (I have a Prius.) Not to mention why you would want to do such a thing. It boggles the mind.

  • betty barcode

    It is maddening that our knee-jerk language is that “a car” did this or “an SUV” did that. No such thing happened. The driver did it.

    If you’re good with hashtags, it’d be great to have something short & comprehensible for calling out this practice.

    And yes, emphatically, “accident” is not synonymous with “collision.”

  • unquiet

    It makes me think of all the plane “accidents” that have happened recently. Oh wait, they’re not called that, they are “crashes”. Perhaps we should move this towards the “road terrorism” column….

  • davistrain

    Reminds me of an old cowboy story, with the “punch line” “them warn’t no axydents–them varmints done it a-purpose.” I suppose the use of the term “accident” could be traced to the unlikelihood of a writer or TV news person (or other reasonably rational citizen) deliberately ramming or running over someone. Most drivers try to avoid hitting anything with their vehicles. Even if it’s just a “fender-bender”, the expense in time and money makes crashes undesirable. But all bets are off if someone drives away after a fight with a spouse or a chewing-out by the boss. As the old philosopher said, “He who flies into a rage usually makes a bad landing. Too bad that with all the modern electronics in cars these days, they don’t have “bad attitude detectors” that disable the engine until the driver calms down.

  • Nobody could have predicted.

  • DayWalker

    Not sure I understand the point of this article. Where’s the analysis? So it’s always called an accident, whether it was an accident or not, or even when it obviously was not an accident. And we talk about the events on the road as if they were carried out by the cars and not the drivers in them. Where does this leave us? What needs to change? Could it explain why people in cars see pedestrians as nothing more than obstacles, and bicyclists as threats? Is there an anti-social pathology involved in driving culture? Or is it just that cars and cities don’t mix?

  • Ed Beighe

    The NHTSA dropped the a-word in 1997, so it’s good to see progress, e.g. the NYC police example you cite; the state of Arizona renamed their MV crash forms in 2009; i see it way less in the media than i used to http://azbikelaw.org/blog/was-that-an-accident-or-a-crash/

  • Jeff Larson

    Not all crashes are “accidents”. They are not the same thing. By definition “accidents” happen “unexpectedly and unintentionally” and are “without apparent or deliberate cause”. But media often use the word “accident without knowing the intent and cause, which can’t be determined until an investigation is complete. Most of the time reporters use the word “accident” they do not have the information in hand to properly describe it as such.

  • Jeff Larson

    From my perspective use of the word “accident” affects how we drive and the way we see our responsibilities as drivers. An “accident” is something that can not be avoided. If we were in an “accident” it couldn’t possibly have been our fault. Our actions don’t have to be reviewed or considered because the word “accident” inoculates us to blame or fault. We accept the carnage on our roads, the thousands who are killed and injured, because “accidents happen”. There’s a tacit statement in our language that “nothing can be done” because “accidents happen”. Drunk, drugged, and negligent drivers avoid some level of accountability because even though they participated in a criminal act that is universally understood to endanger others, the harm they cause was just an “accident”. Oops, did I do that?

    But beyond this, as a former traffic reporter, it’s just sloppy journalism. Journalists should be accurate in how they use words. Not every crash is an “accident”. A roadway suicide is an intentional event, not an “accident”. Road rage crashes are intentional events, not “accidents”. People participating in crimes have made conscious decisions to endanger others with their actions. Their roadway incidents are not “accidents”. And let’s be clear, drunk and drugged driving is a crime.

    So this being the case, when reporters cover roadway incidents, the default word to describe the event should not be “accident”. Too many crashes are intentional or related to crimes. Making the assumption that a crash is an “accident” is sloppy journalism. Reporters should NEVER use the word “accident” until it has been clearly established that there was no intent, no crime and no negligence.

  • DayWalker

    I see. So calling incidents accidents reassures us that we are basically safe when we drive. Brilliant!

  • Jeff Larson

    If that’s what my message communicated than I’m sorry for misstating my point. I would restate your point this way.

    Calling incidents “accidents” allows us to avoid responsibility for our actions as drivers, and gives us the false impression that there’s nothing we can do to avoid crashes.

  • DayWalker

    I was thinking more of the propaganda value of calling them accidents. If they were ‘intentionals’ then only the brave would drive!

  • Jeff Larson

    That would make my commute to work much easier.

  • ¤ The San Francisco Chronicle story on the “piggybacking” incident actually described is as one car mounting another. The astute Building Safety Awareness newsdesk points out that this was probably a survival strategy by automobiles in response to the War On Cars:

    http://buildsafe.tumblr.com/post/116462934755/hollywood-ca-in-an-attempt-for-their-species-to

  • The NYPD issued a statement in 2013 that the term “accident’ was deprecated, after which they took pains to use the exonerating word “inadvertent” instead. Before going back to routinely using “accident,” of course.

  • Jeff Larson

    The great thing about the English language is that there are usually other words to choose from. Crash, collision, wreck and incident are all neutral to intent or negligence. “Accident” is the word that defense lawyers and defendants use to avoid responsibility and blame. None of those words incriminate or accuse regarding fault, or lack thereof.

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