Was that an accident, or a crash?

0The term “accident” should never be used in connection with a vehicle collision.

Here is the reasoning. The terminology switch at NHTSA occurred years ago…

The NHTSA Campaign

Crashes are not AccidentsI (finally! I found it in archive.org) dug up the NHTSA Now! Volume 3, Number 11 from August 1997; below is the entire article pasted from “NHTSA Now!”:

“Crashes Aren’t Accidents” Campaign

by Pamela Anikeeff, Traffic Safety Programs
On June 8, at the opening of the Lifesavers/15 Conference in Orlando, Florida, Administrator Ricardo Martinez, M.D., with Secretary Rodney Slater kicked off the new nationwide campaign “Crashes Aren’t Accidents”. The Campaign was initiated by Adminstratror Martinez to encourage removal of the word “accident” from our vocabulary. The campaign kickoff featured a poster sized Proclamation (see box) announcing the “Crashes Aren’t Accidents” campaign which was signed by the Administrator as part of the ceremony. In a short time, numerous organizations representing thousands of supporters joined the Administrator and literally “signed onto” the Proclamation as well.

A Crash Is Not an Accident

Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.

Since we can identify the causes of crashes, we can take action to alter the effect, and avoid collisions. These events are not “acts of God” but predictable results of the laws of physics.

The concept of “accident” works against bringing all the appropriate resources to bear on the enormous problem of motor vehicle collisions. Continuous use of “accident” fosters the idea that the resulting injuries are an una-voidable part of life.

“Crash”, “collision”, “incident”, and “injury” are more appropriate terms, and should be encouraged as substitutes for the word “accident”.

Within the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (US DOT/NHTSA), the word “accident” will no longer be used in materials published and distributed by the agency. In addition, NHTSA is no longer using “accidents” in speeches or other public remarks, in communications with the news media, individuals or groups in the public or private sector.

Recently, two other U.S. Department of Transportation agencies, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) joined NHTSA Administrator, Dr. Ricardo Martinez, endorsing his goal to eliminate “accident” from the agencies’ vocabulary. In this manner, attention will be focused on causes of crashes, and what can be done to prevent collisions and the resulting injuries.

Campaign materials include three specific items: 1) a four page booklet which contains a letter from Administrator Martinez concerning the campaign, a copy of the Proclamation announcing the campaign, a sample article for newsletters, and a page of the “Crashes Aren’t Accidents” logo in various sizes ready for use; 2) a brochure which lists 15 proven ways to prevent crashes and avoid injuries; 3) Stickers with the “Crashes Aren’t Accidents” logo. These three items are available from the Office of Communications and Outreach, Marketing and Media Division. Additional materials for conference exhibits include: Plastic carrying bags, red plastic paper clips, and lapel pins with the “Crashes Aren’t Accidents” logo.


Whereas, changing the way we think about events and the words we use will affect the way we behave. Our goal is to eliminate the word “accident” from the realm of unintentional injury, on the highway and across the nation;

Whereas, motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions;

Whereas, we can identify their causes and take action to avoid them. These are not “acts of God”, but predictable results of the laws of physics;

Whereas, use of the word “accident” works against bringing the appropriate resources to bear on this enormous problem. It allows the idea that the resulting injuries are an unexpected part of life;

Now, therefore, we the undersigned, in recognition of this life saving and injury preventing opportunity, do hereby proclaim a national campaign:

“Crashes Aren’t Accidents”

To eliminate the word “accident” from the realm of unintentional injury, on the highway and across the nation, with our partners, with the media, and in all public contexts.

I encourage the use of other appropriate terms such as “crash,” ” collision,” “incident,” and “injury.”

Letter to the Editor

This letter appeared in the August 1998 issue of the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery:

A Plea for Prevention Please note that the term MVA (Motor Vehicle Accident) will not be used in this document. An accident is defined as an unpredictable and unpreventable event. The researched causes of Motor Vehicle “Accidents” are 85% driver error, 10 % road or environmental factors and 5% vehicle failure; therefore they do not fit the criteria to be deemed accidental. Injuries caused by Motor Vehicle Collisions, while unintentional, are still preventable through the addressing of the factors contributing to these injuries.

Poole, Galen V. MD, FACS
Chairman, Violence Prevention Task Force; Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

Here’s a pretty good summation

Reprinted from Philip Yannarella’s Sept 2003 “Documents for Everyone” newsletter:

Vehicle accidents have been occurring since the first rider fell off his horse, two chariots collided in the Rome streets, or the first motorized vehicles collided in an American street. It was not until August 11, 1997 that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided that “Crashes are not Accidents.” Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable and preventable events. “Since we can identify the causes of crashes, we can take action to alter the effect, and avoid collisions. These events are not “acts of God” but predictable results of the laws of physics. The use of the term “Accident” promotes the concept that these events (that is, accidents) are outside of human influence or control. Since “Crashes Aren’t Accidents,” the NHTSA Traffic Safety Program Campaign of 1997 was initiated with the removal of “Accident” from the NHTSA vocabulary and any media or public NHTSA discussion of unintentional highway injuries. Instead of “accident” the use of terms such as “crash,” “collision,” “incident,” and “injury” was encouraged, since “Crashes Aren’t Accidents.” There is an article “‘Crashes Aren’t Accidents'” Campaign”by Pamela Anikeeff, NHTSA Now, V. 3, No. 11, August 11, 1997 pages 1-2 (pasted, below). What does it mean that crashes are not accidents? The answer to the questions: Why is an automobile crash is not an accident? and Why are vehicle Accidents not accidents? did not come until 2003…read the rest

Archived Page from NHTSA

From a 2004 presentation: www.nhtsa.gov, (link dead — here it is via archive.org)

DriversEd.com Article


The AP Stylebook

The AP has been a recurring source of the a-word in media report. At their annual convention, #ACES2016,  they very recently inserted a new entry into their style guide with some (albeit weak) guidance to avoid the a-word, this new entry was added:

accident, crash – Generally acceptable for automobile and other collisions and wrecks. However, when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms. See collide, collision.



21 thoughts on “Was that an accident, or a crash?”

  1. This is an excellent article! Ed, you may have noticed that the insurance carriers are still heavily using the word “accident” in their TV campaigns. Insurance defense lawyers like that word in court. I suspect that saturating the public with the word “accident” rather than Crash or Collision can affect how people think and this has to be advantageous for insurance companies to shape the minds of future jurors.

    The best way to stop lawsuits is to stop the crashes and hold accountable those who cause them.

  2. How do I get campaign materials listed on page 3 of CRASHES ARE NOT ACCIDENTS:
    1. tHE 4 PAGE BOOKLET.


  3. Better late than never for the NYPD, coming ~ 16 years later!:

    And in a symbolic semantic change that some advocates for crash victims have long requested, the department will begin using the term “collision” instead of “accident” to describe crashes, Mr. Kelly said. The squad itself will soon be renamed the Collision Investigation Squad.
    “In the past, the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event,” Mr. Kelly wrote.

  4. The word accident was used when a girl riding her bike was hit by a car. The girl was following an older teen who led her off the bike trails across a busy street. The crossing was needless. The lead girl crossed against the light. The driver saw neither cyclist. The leader intentionally created danger. The driver could not have been paying attention.

  5. Eric Post pointed this out:
    Somewhere along the line, ADOT/MVD has expunged the word “accident” from the Arizona Driver License Manual, pub number is 99-0117. This is wonderful news.
    I can’t figure out how to pull up old versions of the manual (the link has ?sfvrsn=11 tacked onto it, changing the 11 doesn’t seem to do anything). In any event the current version says copyright 2013, and the front matter carried the name Stacey K. Stanton as Director of MVD).
    There are 36 and 15 instances of the term ‘crash’ and ‘collision’, respectively; and zero instances of the word ‘accident’. I imagine formerly many of these formerly used the a-word.

    There are still instances of the a-word lurking on MVD’s web pages, for example this entire paragraph at Driver Services is verbatim with the Driver Manual except for the a-word!

    Law enforcement officers will ask you for proof of insurance at the time of traffic stops or accidents. Insurance companies notify us of all policy cancellations, non-renewals, and new policies. If your insurance company sends us a notice that your policy is no longer active, we will send you an inquiry notice to verify insurance status.

  6. This letter was brought to my attention by Candace Lightner, President – We Save Lives (Founder of MADD).
    To the Publisher and Editors of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune,

    We read with great interest your article, “Is a car crash ever an accident?” (10/31/14) by Nicole Norfleet.
    In the piece it is mentioned that the Star Tribune is considering amending the papers’ style guide with regard to use of the word “accident”.
    We, the undersigned all support and encourage you to make this change in the way your writers, reporters and editors use the word “accident” in reporting on roadway incidents.
    It is our belief that “accident” carries a connotation, or an implication, that crashes are unavoidable and without fault....read the rest

    With regard to Associated Press @APStyleBook:

    AP’s “Ask the Editor”:
    Q. I’ve always written traffic “crash,” not “accident” because the latter seems to imply no fault. But unceasingly I see people calling crashes accidents. Does it matter? from Fort Collins, Colo. on Oct 22, 2013
    A. Yes, avoid terms that might suggest a conclusion

    Article by prosecutor Brandon Hughes on why word choice matters when prosecuting vehicular-crime cases.

  7. by the way, when reporting on traffic crashes I would like to encourage journalists to not use the “a-word”. Calling something an accident has connotations that the event is outside of anyone’s control. Use “crash”, “collision” or “incident” instead.
    the traffic safety community has been moving in this direction for years, the feds ( US DOT / NHTSA ) expunged the term many years ago, and more recently in 2009 the state of arizona formally renamed the form used throughout the state from a “Traffic Accident Report” to the “Arizona Crash Report” for just this reason. Here’s some background material…

    “Crashes are not Accidents” is a message that has been wholly embraced by the professional traffic safety community, years ago. For example there is not such thing as a “traffic accident report” in Arizona, since 2009 — it is a “Crash report”. Most journalists and media outlets have followed suit, but it still lingers; please help by pointing out to them that crashes are not accidents. links to more information http://azbikelaw.org/was-that-an-accident-or-a-crash/

  8. Here’s a pretty good sample letter written by Candace, useful for journalist contacts:

    Like others who hear and read this story, I was incensed but not surprised that a multiple repeat offender was allowed to continue to drive until he finally killed someone. This was my story 35 years ago when I started MADD. I was dismayed by this driver’s comments blaming everyone else for his problem, saddened by the tragedy that followed and angered by your reporting. Yes, angered. By calling this an “accident”, you fed into his denial and lack of accountability and fostered the defense attorney’s rhetoric that these tragedies can’t be helped. I am also the founder of We Save Lives.org, the only Florida based international organization that deals with the 3 D’s, drunk, drugged and distracted driving. I always use Florida as an example of media who do not use the word accident when reporting these crimes or crashes because the police here use the term crash when making their reports and the legislature substituted the word crash for accident years ago. They recognized that most crashes occur due to driver error and are not accidents in any sense of the word. The media insults the families of the victims and survivors when they use the “A” word and show bias in their reporting, since they are making the immediate assumption no one was at fault. I am expressing my disappointing not only on behalf of We Save Lives.org but also on behalf of the Crash Coalition:Drop the “A” word http://wesavelives.org/crash-coalition/ with more than 52 national and international organizations and thousands of members who support our belief that use of the word accident is just plain wrong. These drivers make choices, those choices lead to crashes and crimes (impaired driving is a very serious crime) and these deadly and irresponsible choices should not be excused by calling them accidents. I hope in the future your reporting will reflect the feelings of victims and survivors and demonstrate more accuracy in reporting. I am located not far from Jacksonville along with other We Save Lives members I would be most happy to meet with your editorial board and discuss this further.

    Thank you for your time.
    Candace Lightner, President
    Founder, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)
    703-296-4708 cell

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