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Five Car Culture Euphemisms We Need To Stop Using

How does everyday language hide the real impact of building a world that functionally requires everyone to drive?

Car dependency is a massive driver of some of America's most urgent challenges — even if we don't always recognize it. And a big part of that has to do with the simple language we use to describe those crises without acknowledging the outsized role that automobility plays in creating them.

Here are five common car culture euphemisms to look out for, inspired by Streetsblog readers — and what to say instead.

1. 'Traffic accidents'

Let's start with a phrase so problematic it's inspired an entire movement to get Americans to drop it from their collective lexicon: the "traffic accident," and its close cousin, the "car accident."

In addition to invisibilizing the outsized role of automobiles in our national roadway safety crisis by using the vague umbrella term "traffic" — roadway deaths not involving cars are so rare they're not even searchable on federal databases — the term car "accident" implies that deadly collisions are purely the result of individual drivers' unintentional mistakes, rather than the consequence of systemic failures of policy that we can and must address. Or, as the advocacy groups Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets once memorably put it:

Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions. Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word "accident" today.

And the difference between "crashes" and "accidents" isn't just semantic. A famous 2019 study found that research subjects who were shown news articles about pedestrian crashes that used the phrase "car accident" and other problematic driver-privileging language were more likely to assign blame to the pedestrians, and significantly less likely to support infrastructure improvements that might have saved those walkers' lives.

Policymakers hear the term "car accidents" as much as the rest of us, and those two simple words affect how our transportation network is funded and designed. In 2016, the AP Style Guide was even amended to caution journalists not to use the word "when negligence is claimed or proven" — though, disappointingly, it stopped short of making it clear that "accident" shouldn't be our default.

Say this instead: Car crashes, automobile collisions

2. 'Transportation' sector emissions

When we say that the "transportation" sector is America's leading source of greenhouse gases, it conjures a carousel images of everything from your grandparents' annual cruise to Taylor Swift's private jet trips.

Those things are certainly problems, but they pale in comparison to everyday, run-of-the-mill ground transportation, which was responsible for a staggering 80 percent of all planet-warming pollution in the sector in 2022.

To tackle America's greatest source of carbon emissions, we need to stop hiding which modes gobble up nearly all of the pie, and pursue structural solutions that get us all out from behind the wheel — because as study after study has shown, vehicle electrification alone won't cut it.

Say this instead: "car and truck emissions," "transportation sector emissions, which are overwhelmingly dominated by cars and trucks"

3. 'Traffic,' 'Traffic jams' and 'congestion'

In its strictest dictionary definition, the word "traffic" should refer to the movement of people and vehicles along a given route — including bicycles, pedestrians, and transit vehicles — and it doesn't specify anything about the speed at which any of them are traveling.

In a car-dominated society though, "traffic" is magically transformed into a shorthand for "a bunch of cars and trucks packed bumper to bumper on a roadway" — and "congestion" becomes a problem to be solved by building more lanes, rather than by changing the balance between private automobiles and other modes within the traffic flow.

The trouble with that, of course, is that building more lanes has never reduced automobile congestion long term, because roomy roads just encourage more and more people to drive — and make more and more people hesitant to get around in other, more sustainable ways, lest they be hit by drivers or stuck in a bus behind a massive back-up of automobiles.

And by erasing cars from the equation, we also subtly imply that "congestion" is an inevitable force of nature that's somehow separate from cars, that we have to respond to by constantly re-building the world to accommodate more motorists. In reality, traffic congestion is a predictable consequence of, well, building the world around motorists, which all but guarantees not just more commuters at rush hour, but more horrifying deaths and injuries in car crashes ... which has the side effect of clogging roads even more.

Until we can reclaim the word "traffic" to refer to everyone moving through our cities at even the slowest speeds, we should at least be honest about what "congestion" really means in most U.S. communities today: drivers, drivers, and more drivers.

Say this instead: Backed-up cars.

4. Transportation engineering jargon

"Transportation" engineers aren't just "car infrastructure" engineers ... but as many Streetsblog readers point out, the terminology they tend to use often centers the needs of motorists, even if you can't always tell at a glance.

Innocuous-sounding engineering terms like "level of service." for instance, refer specifically to the amount of delay that motorists experience at intersections — rather than the level of access, safety, or comfort that other road users should be able to expect in that same space.

That metric is studied obsessively during the "traffic studies" that precede most U.S. road projects — though in many cases, only impacts to car traffic are measured, and the only "travel time" that engineers seek to minimize is driving time.

"Forgiving design," meanwhile, is essentially euphemism for "designs that make it less likely that a car will be damaged or its occupants harmed if a driver makes a mistake" — even if those same designs provide little to no protection for people outside automobiles.

Some argue that the transportation engineering field needs to radically overhaul the language and metrics it uses to describe a well-functioning built environment, and start prioritizing people over cars in both. That starts with making it crystal clear when drivers and their vehicles are the assumed default — so we can be honest about much everyone else suffers because of it.

Say this instead: Ditch the engineering jargon completely and talk in layman's terms.

5. ... and about a million other things.

This article would be a full-length book if we really tried to name all the ways that we hide the negative impacts of car culture in our everyday language:

"Road kill"? Yeah, that's pretty much just drivers killing animals.

"Ocean microplastics"? Um, 78 percent of it is car tires.

"Parking?" Overwhelmingly used to refer to the free or legally mandated storage of private cars in public space, at the expense of about a zillion other, better uses.

What's more important than rooting out euphemisms like these, though, is recognizing the way that near-universal car dependency shapes so much of how we think, move, legislate and design our cities — even if we never drive ourselves. Because until we name car domination it for what it is, we'll never be able to dismantle it.

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