A Word On Words: Accidents

“The public usually associates the word with an event, not with the damage that results.”

Erase it from your vocabulary.  Please.

As someone trained in public health, I loathe this word.  It implies an event is an act of God, unpredictable and unpreventable, something that happens by chance.  If you’re interested in a very thorough history of the word, this article provides details back to the 14th Century of its use in both a legal and religious context.  If you’re perhaps a little less interested, let it suffice to say it was a useful word before we had more rigorous methods of inquiry and all we could do was chalk things up to events falling from the heavens.  But it also shows a pattern of this word having been repeatedly rejected as a technical term–both scientifically and legally, due to its lack of meaning useful to those fields.  Instead, its persistence stems from the term’s usefulness in marketing and politics.

The problem with this word–which, not coincidentally is why it is useful politically–is that it stands in the way of progress.  As long as we term something an “accident” we don’t (and don’t have to) look any further.  “Things happen,” we say, “accidents happen.”  What can you do about things that just “happen”?

William Haddon, among many others, broke this down quite awhile ago now.  In 1968, Haddon, a public health physician with the New York State Health Department, developed a matrix of categories to assist researchers trying to systematically address injury prevention. The idea was to look at injuries in terms of causal factors and contributing factors, rather than just using a descriptive approach. A Haddon Matrix is a systematic way of thinking about the contributing factors to what might be termed (but never will again, right?) an “accident.”  The standard Matrix is 4 columns and three rows (though there can be a third dimension if you want to get fancy).   The rows represent time (pre-event, event, and post-event).  The columns represent categories of factors which contribute to the event: host (person to whom the event occurs), agent (the object or other person or other force doing the injury), physical environment, and social environment.  It organizes and makes systematic our thoughts about what might, in the 14th Century–have been considered to have dropped from the sky.  Below is an example Haddon Matrix for drowning.


So you can see, an “accident” is not an accident at all–it is, in fact, an event which occurs due to multiple decisions.  Decisions made at the time of the event, as well as those made way before, which set in place things like the physical and social environment in which the event occurs.

Now, one might stick up for the colloquial use of “accident” because it connotes an event which was not intentional.  Because the person did not premeditate to use their car to find that specific person and mow them down.  But again, this is unacceptable as a use for that word.

Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh didn’t intend to run over Allison Liao.  He didn’t know her.  But he did drive a car–having drunk two glasses of wine–in a crowded urban area a distance he easily could have walked (Which is something you never hear about: is there a reason?  Is there something we could have done to make someone like him feel more comfortable walking?).  And he did fail to yield to–or perhaps even notice–Allie and her grandmother in the crosswalk.  Was this something that just “happened”?  That nothing could be done to change it?  Absolutely not.  It was a predictable result of decisions made and the laws of physics.  Off the top of my head I came up with the following matrix, and I’m sure with a bit of research and more thinking, I could add more:

Haddon Matrix

So what other words can we use?  Crash, collision, wreck.  Perhaps “incident” or “injury” where appropriate.  If you’re in Australia, Wikipedia tells me you can call it a “car smash,” which I quite like.

In New York–in any city adopting Vision Zero–we won’t have real progress until we abolish this word.  And with it, the idea that car crashes are not fully predictable and preventable events which stem from decisions road users (and road designers and politicians) make every day. And with that, our identification with the driver who “will have to live with it” and “who didn’t mean to do it” because we’re scared it could happen to us.   Because the victims will also “have to live with it.”  And the victim could every bit as much be us–EVERYONE is a pedestrian at some point, even if it’s just to walk from your car parked in the closest spot to the door.


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