When a Car Does the Killing, It’s Always an “Accident.”

Mary-Powel Thomas is President of the Community Education Council for School District 15 in Brooklyn. Back in June Thomas organized a pedestrian safety forum for schools, community groups and others who live and work along Brooklyn’s dangerous Third and Fourth Avenue corridors where numerous pedestrians, kids and elderly people in particular, have been injured and killed by motor vehicles in recent months.

Thomas forwards along this interesting letter that she recently submitted to the New York Times.

To the Editor,

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two recent articles in your newspaper. On Monday you reported that an 18-year-old woman was in jail on charges of endangering a child, because her 11-month-old was in a coma after a bathtub accident. She could face additional charges if the little girl dies.

Though "no one doubts [this was] a tragic mistake," a Brooklyn district attorney explained that in deciding whether to press charges, prosecutors ask themselves if the adult’s behavior "constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe."


Today, you report
that a five-year-old is dead in Lindenhurst. His mother moved her minivan, then "discovered her son…lying beneath a tire." No charges were filed.

Hello? Would not a "reasonable" parent of a five-year-old make sure she knew where her child was before moving a two-ton vehicle?

Though the cases occurred in two different jurisdictions, this is nevertheless an appalling contrast. We as a society seem to have decided that motor vehicles are quasi-autonomous beings, and the driver is almost never at fault when the vehicle mysteriously lashes out and kills someone.

Though I have no doubt that the Lindenhurst death was also "a tragic mistake," it would seem that both these mothers merit something between imprisonment and complete exoneration.

Mary-Powel Thomas

Brooklyn, NY

  • anonymous

    Excellent point. And also inconsistent with decisions holding parents responsible for the death of their children in accidents when they weren’t wearing seat belts.

  • brent

    I firmly believe that any car crash resulting in injury or death in which breaking the speed limit, reckless driving, or breaking any rule of the road is a factor should by default not be considered an accident. Drivers are aware of the laws and the reasons for them. To break the laws is to make a conscious decision that selfish motives (speeding to get to an appointment, cutting someone off, road rage) supercede the safety of others and should carry mandatory penalties.

  • Steve

    Brent, Assume your inclusion of “not” above was inadvertent. What you describe is the tort doctrine of “negligence per se”–a motorist in a civil suit is considered negligent per se if s/he injures another while breaking an applicable traffic rule. So the victim does not have to prove that the motorist was negligent in order to recover. That is why it is so crucial that police issue citations for traffic violations in connection with collisions.

  • I have always objected to the use of “accidents” to refer to car killings. How can something that happens more than 40,000 times a year (fatalities in the U.S.) be referred to as an accident? What an obscene euphemism. If anything, it’s slaughter by consensus. I prefer the term “car killing.” Let’s call it what it is.

  • Ian D

    Steve: no – I think he meant to say that when one of the other factors is involved, that is NOT an accident. Maybe you misread it, because the rest of your point is well-taken and seems to follow.

    There are a few ways that I look at it. The best way to explain it is that an event that is a logical outcome of a situation is, by definition, not an accident. Someone driving while impaired, or while violating a vehicle safety law, which results in a crash (a logical outcome) – is not an accident.

  • I don’t want to defend the attitude, but I think it’s explicable.

    American society relies on the automobile, especially outside NYC. People understand that there’s a consequence to having an automobile-based society: 40,000 or so deaths a year. When you’re using this necessary tool properly, there are going to be some deaths. Arguably, the number isn’t even that large when you consider the number of miles driven and the number of people dependent on the automobile.

    The number is horrific if you start to consider that a lot of the deaths are preventable with available technology with little cost. Or that we don’t need to drive so much. Or that many of the deaths are preventable with safer streets. &c.

    That’s where the Streetsblog (and other’s) effort to recast death- and injury-causing vehicular incidents as “crashes” not “accidents” matters. It makes people think that maybe a little boy’s death is not an unavoidable, if tragic, consequence of our way of life.

  • Owen

    Brent is wrong. If you depend completely on the system of traffic laws and not on the intelligence and responsibility of each individual driver, you’ll be left with an even more disgusting version of what we have now: “I was following the rules, so I’m not at fault”. Streetsblog’s philosophy has always been towards a diversity of transportation options, favoring those in which individual actors are the most considerate, i.e. walking and biking. We do not want to adhere to a single system.

  • All too long ago, when I was in high school, I was enrolled in a driving class. It was there where we were taught, it’s not an “accident” — it’s a “collision.” All the same reasons stated in the above comments applied in our teacher’s reasoning.

    If more drivers understood and appreciated how much control they had over these situations, there would certainly be fewer collisions, deaths and injuries.

    Perhaps this should be a mandatory lesson for all students.

  • ddartley

    Saw the corny comedy film “Hot Fuzz” about some British cops a few months ago.

    I decided to applaud when the by-the-book protagonist admonished his partner, who had just referred to the deadly car crash they were investigating as an “accident:”

    “We don’t call them accidents anymore; we call them traffic collisions.”
    “Why can’t we call them accidents?”
    “Official vocab guidelines. ‘Accident’ implies no one’s to blame.”

  • galvo

    Another problem with the driver’s culpability in vehicle collisions is the excessively high speed limit for crowded streets. If your sight lines are unobstructed with light pedestrian and bicycle traffic, 30 mph may be ok.
    This may have been the case when the 30 mph speed limit was established in the ny metro area.
    The current conditions dictate a lowering of the speed limit to what is normally enforced in a school zone, 20 mph. There is a good reason why the 20 mph school zone limit is in place, it should be expanded city wide and to every congested urban area.
    I have noticed when going through the seven lakes drive area of Harriman state park near Sloatsburg NY, the speed limit drops to 25 mph. the sight lines are good, there are very few if any cars parked on the side of the road. There are houses on the street and children are playing and walking along the street, the 25 mph makes perfect sense.

  • ddartley

    Galvo-thank you for adding a voice to the call for reduced speed limits!

    I don’t know why I rarely hear assent to my numerous comments here saying 30mph speed limits have NO PLACE in cities.

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