Can Police Departments Get on Board with #CrashNotAccident?

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.

The Houston Police Department public information officer I spoke with said “we’ve always called them crashes,” although at least as recently as 2008, when they were setting up this online reporting system, they referred to “accidents.” The Dallas Police Department listened to my suggestion to avoid using the term “accident” and said a lieutenant looking into the issue.

The Texas Department of Transportation refers to such incidents as crashes, and the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration actually had a “crashes aren’t accidents” campaign back in 1997.

Our local public agencies, especially police departments, fire, and EMS — who must deal with the daily carnage on our roads — have ample cause to do everything in their power to prevent traffic crashes. Part of that effort should be to adopt #CrashNotAccident.

This post is made possible by a grant from Sutliff & Stout, an accident and injury law firm in Houston Texas. The content is Streetsblog’s own, and Sutliff & Stout neither endorses nor exercises any editorial control.


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