Houston PD uses the neutral term “incident” instead of the loaded term “accident.”
Words matter. But when we talk about traffic deaths and injuries, too often we slip into language that obscures how preventable these tragedies are.
Referring to them as “accidents” connotes a lack of human agency, as though no one was at fault and the crash could not have been avoided. Instead of examining how the injury could have been prevented with safer driving behavior or better street design, the word “accident” gives us license to toss up our hands. What can you do to avoid fatalities in the future, after all, if it was “just an accident”?
#CrashNotAccident is a national movement to change the way we talk and write about traffic deaths and injuries. The Associated Press, which publishes an influential style guide for media outlets, now counsels reporters to avoid using “accident” when “negligence is claimed or proven,” because it “can be read as exonerating the person responsible.”
The two largest police departments in Texas — Houston PD and Dallas PD — have different policies on how to describe traffic crashes. The online incident reporting system for Dallas refers only to “minor accidents” and “major accidents,” while the equivalent system in Houston refers to “crashes.”
I called each department up to see what the thinking was behind their use of language.