Accidentally On Purpose

By Eben Weiss, a.k.a. Bike Snob

The phrase “car accident” is so common that many of us use it without even thinking about it.

However, once you do think about it, you begin to realize how silly it is to default to the word “accident” in the context of something that involves police investigation, property damage, injury or death — not to mention something that is often the inevitable consequence of a crime. Therefore, Transportation Alternatives has launched a campaign to stop calling traffic crashes “accidents,” and to instead call them crashes.

Because, you know, that’s what they are.

This should be an easy transition. After all, accuracy aside, using “crash” instead of “accident” saves two (2) whole syllables! Plus, if you’re tweeting, it gives you three extra characters you can then squander on emojis.

“Car crash killed my Hyundai. FML.”

Nevertheless, there has been a bit of a backlash against throwing “accident” onto the scrap heap. For example, a Slate columnist slammed the campaign by invoking classical philosophy and the concept of telos, proving liberal arts degrees can be almost as dangerous as cars.

Some people say it’s not fair to the poor drivers, who are innocent until proven guilty because this is America, Home of the Whopper. Still others think tinkering with our language is typical politically correct syntactical gerrymandering on the part of the limousine liberals (or, in this case “bakfiets liberals”) of Park Slope.

Wrong, and wrong.

Firstly, “crash” doesn’t imply guilt any more than “accident” does. Indeed, “crash” is completely neutral, whereas “accident” absolves everybody involved before the police even have a chance to declare “no criminality suspected.” Secondly, there’s nothing “PC” about any of this. If anything, calling a crash an “accident” is PC, in that it’s an overly sensitive word that obfuscates the severity of what’s happened.

“Oh, no, there’s been an accident! Does anybody need a hug?”

But perhaps most importantly, “accident” implies a fait accompli, whereas a crash is something you can take measures to prevent in the future. As the nerds at Transportation Alternatives will happily tell you, there are “numbers” and “statistics” indicating that every time a bike lane is added to a street, fewer drivers crash there.

Indeed, besides traffic crashes, the most common context in which you’ll come across the word “accident” is in child-rearing, where it’s usually employed as an excuse. For example, during potty training, we assuage our children’s guilt for soiling themselves by assuring them that “accidents happen.” They soon figure out the absolving power of this word, and a few years later when you ask them why they hit a sibling over the head with a Barbie doll, they assure you that it was “just an accident.” Lesson learned.

The word “accident” is most jarring when it is used by the police and the media, who should not be discussing potential crime scenes like they’re potty mishaps. Consider the driver who struck a building parapet on a rooftop garage in Queens late this summer, creating a deluge of bricks that nearly crushed the people below. CBS News called that one not just an accident, but a “freak accident”:

And it turned out, it was not the first time the building was damaged in a freak accident. Back in February of 2014, a snow plow pushed a garbage can — crashing into the front glass window and injuring a woman sitting inside.

Okay, something that happens on an annual basis isn’t a “freak accident,” because if it were that would put a whole new spin on Christmas.

Not only that, but drivers crash into buildings all the time. Only a day before it rained bricks in Forest Hills, another driver had plowed into the Value Depot right around the corner — and a few days before that the driver of a casino bus crashed into a residential building in Rego Park. Then there was the driver who plowed into an Aeropostale store in the Bay Terrace Shopping Center, and the one who plowed into the Pathmark in Flushing, and one who hit the discount store in Ozone Park, and the school bus driver who took out the fruit market (that’s some Jerry Bruckheimer stuff right there), and the motorist who made a schmear out of the bagel place…and that’s just in Queens!

I’m no detective, but that’s not an accident. That’s a pattern.

But for some truly absurd use of the word “accident,” let’s head a few miles east of Queens into Nassau County, where in the summer of 2014 ABC News reported on a woman who drove into a firehouse:

Sarah Espinosa, 22, lost control of her 2010 Toyota Prius around 7 p.m. on Monday night while driving on Jericho Turnpike in New Hyde Park on Long Island, according to police.

Ooh, sounds serious. What happened?

A police report states that Espinosa’s vehicle “drove over the center median striking a Nissan Maxima and continuing through the front garage door of the New Hyde Park Fire House. Her vehicle collided with two fire trucks parked in the firehouse causing damage to the vehicles.”

So, what is the excuse that makes this an accident? Faulty accelerator? Mistook gas for brake? Swerved to avoid cyclist?

Hardly:

Fire personnel at the scene rushed to aid Espinosa when they “discovered a small ball python snake wrapped around the defendant’s neck,” which they promptly removed and secured, according to the police report.

Now we’re getting into some real intrigue! So how did the python get there? Was it planted by a rival spy in a devious Bond-worthy act of sabotage?

Not exactly:

“Third Precinct officers responded and determined Espinosa had stolen the snake from [a Garden City] Petco,” according to the report, which also stated that Espinosa was in possession of marijuana at the time of the accident. The snake is sold at Petco for $89, a store employee said.

Wow.

Okay, so let’s take a closer look at this “accident.” The way I read this is that our driver gets baked and shoplifts a python from the Petco in Garden City.

Then she fires up the ol’ Prius and heads out onto Jericho Turnpike, shortly after which the python decides to strangle her, possibly because it has Stockholm syndrome and wants to go back to Petco.

This adversely affects her driving, she crosses the median and hits the Maxima, and then goes careening into the firehouse —

— at which point the first aid responders “removed and secured” the python (though I like to think it later managed to slither back to Petco in the ensuing melee).

Calling this an “accident” is a Nobel Prize-worthy act of charity, and if anything I’m amazed that things turned out as well as they did.

In fact, the sheer inevitability of so many crashes is yet another problem with the word “accident”: Given all this reckless driving (the poor street design doesn’t help), the only accident is when we manage not to crash at all.

Of course, most crashes aren’t so delightfully slapsticky, and many of them destroy lives. This is yet another urgent reason to ditch the word “accident.” After all, you might explain to your child that he or she had an “accident,” but you’d never in a million years call them one. So imagine how a parent must feel when the police or the media call the crash that took their child’s life an “accident.”

It’s simply the wrong word to use. It cheapens lives. Using “crash” instead of “accident” is a crucial step away from shrugging off the victim.

Our language and our streets have much in common: they’re both something we all share, and they’re both something we need to update from time to time. Clinging to retrograde terms like “accident” is like failing to calm Queens Boulevard, or the Grand Concourse, or any of the other arteries badly in need of safety improvements. In both cases we need to discard the features that are obsolete and outmoded, and then we need to adapt them to reflect the reality that crashes are preventable.

Because “accident” is just a cop-out.