It’s No Accident

What if news articles of shootings, stabbings and other deaths used the same language normally employed to describe traffic collisions? Today on the Streetsblog Network, David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington points to media coverage of a crash in Culpeper County, VA, as an example of our tendency to view traffic violence as an immutable force of nature.

No news story ever began saying, "A person was killed yesterday when he collided with a bullet moving at high speed in the opposite direction." Yet that’s exactly how news stories about traffic "accidents" often begin.

Our habit of dehumanizing the actions of cars tends to create assumptions that their actions are not actually someone’s responsibility. A driver hit and killed some people in another car in Culpeper. It’s extremely unlikely his car magically malfunctioned. And even if it did, we don’t engage in the same linguistic contortions to say, for example, that a police officer’s bullet impacted a suspected robber, who had himself been holding a gun which fired into someone else earlier in the day. That would be silly. So is this.

Elsewhere on the Network, with the MTA set to vote on drastic fare hikes and service reductions tomorrow, Second Avenue Sagas looks back at how the agency, and the region, finds itself on the brink of transit doomsday. Still, The Transport Politic notes that some in Staten Island see light rail in that borough’s future. And as Urban Milwaukee prepares for new streetcar service, Beyond DC welcomes rail to BRT pioneer Curitiba, Brazil.

  • We tend to reserve “kill” for deaths with intent. I deplore careless driving as much as the next person (hell, it’s why I don’t drive myself), but it really serves no-one to twist the language with linguistic games like this.

  • oh, please

    I deplore traffic injuries as much as anyone, but come on. Someone dies in both situations, but a fatal car crash is of course not the same as a fatal shooting. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.”

    We can and should wean our country from dangerous urban design and irresponsible behavior like driving while yakking on cell phones. But it makes livable streets advocates look foolish to claim “it’s no accident.” And just to be fair to the mainstream media, they do use words like “murder” on those rare occasions when someone intentionally uses a car as a weapon.

  • cornish phen

    And what of manslaughter then, folks? If someone accidentally discharges a gun and shoots someone, and they subsequently die, the shooter has “killed” someone. Likewise, someone carelessly or recklessly driving who then kills someone as a result has some degree of culpability.
    It seems like the only reason we let drivers off the hook so often is that, when it comes to careless and reckless driving, “everyone does it.” Therefore, our standards by which to measure negligence are skewed. A car isn’t a weapon, but it is a big, potentially dangerous piece of machinery that requires attention and skill. When these aren’t applied, disaster can result and people should be responsible.

  • We use “murder” for deaths with intent. Kill is a perfectly acceptable word to use, as in (David Alpert’s example), “A driver hit and killed some people in another car in Culpeper.” By analogy, if a licensed gun owner accidently discharges his weapon, and the result is that the gun-owner’s neighbor dies, I think we’d all agree that we’d say that the gun owner killed the neighbor (even though that was never his intent).

    If someone is killed while biking, or crossing the street, by a motorist who had no intention of harming anyone, but was just gunning it to beat out a traffic signal, I think it makes sense to say that someone got “killed.” That’s what happened.

  • cornish phen –

    thanks! didn’t see your post until after my own went up.

  • Speaking as someone who had a very nasty car accident (though no one was hurt) because of a blown tire in a rental car, a true accident, I find it insulting that careless and negligent drivers get the same title attached to their consequences as mine, where my passengers and I were truly the victims of a poorly maintained rental car, from no fault of our own.

  • In short, yes, there does need to be a distinction. A clear one.

  • ben

    The problem I see is there is no definition of killing someone in a car. Nor is there enough evidence even though technology exists to provide this.

    Two there is no responsibility for hurting or killing someone who is not in a car. Community service would be a great avenue along with complete suspension of a DL (no work permit) which almost never happens. These would be very simple things at the very least we could do.

    People get hung up on intent. Why we can’t get past negligent behavior is intent in itself is beyond me when using a weapon.

  • garyg

    We use “murder” for deaths with intent. Kill is a perfectly acceptable word to use, as in (David Alpert’s example), “A driver hit and killed some people in another car in Culpeper.” By analogy, if a licensed gun owner accidently discharges his weapon, and the result is that the gun-owner’s neighbor dies, I think we’d all agree that we’d say that the gun owner killed the neighbor (even though that was never his intent).

    So if a mother accidently leaves her baby in a hot car during the summer and the baby dies from heatstroke, you think newspapers should report this as “Mother kills her child by leaving it in hot car,” rather than, say, “Child dies after being left in hot car by its mother,” do you?

  • David Alpert has it right on.
    NHTSA launched their “Crashes are Not Accidents” campaign in 1997.
    We all would be wise to reserve “accidents” for acts of god, or nature.

    Thank you, David!

  • @ garyg –

    Yes, I think that if someone kills an infant by locking it in a hot car, I think that we should say that the infant was killed.

  • Karen

    I’ve been in collisions with two motor vehicles as a cyclist, two accidents as the passenger in a car, and two crashes as the driver of a vehicle. Now I have used different words to describe all of these incidents, but I consider all of them accidents. I am cyclist and I do think there needs to be more careful attention paid to how accidents occur and how we hold drivers who are careless or speeding accountable for their actions. However, I don’t think this discussion about rhetoric is especially important nor do I think it is something that will resonate with the public at large. I respect the writer here but disagree with this message.

  • cornish phen

    @ garyg

    I have to second David K here: yes, the mother killed her child. Who “accidentally” leaves the child in a hot car?

    I’m sure with a little thought we can all come up with exceptions and examples of “real” accidents. Those aren’t the issue – people driving negligently or worse and being held with zero responsibility for the consequences of their actions is at issue.

  • Karen – I think that this is important because you can get in more trouble by jumping a subway turnstyle in this city than by (for example) causing the deaths of two children by leaving your van unattended in reverse gear to run them down on a busy street. Those kids (victims of the incident in Chinatown on January 22) were killed because of one person’s actions. That person who killed the kids apparently suffers no consequences because the whole thing was an “accident” — he didn’t mean it, and we should forget about it.

    In other words, I think that this is important because killing is what is going on — and because I think that words do matter, and can affect public behavior. If it were “common knowledge” that the Chinatown van driver killed kids, there would be prosecution; similarly, perhaps drivers would drive more carefully (not wanting to kill anyone) if they were a little more conscious that negligent behavior behind the wheel kills people.

  • garyg

    Yes, I think that if someone kills an infant by locking it in a hot car, I think that we should say that the infant was killed.

    Alpert’s complaint is that car crash fatalities are reported using passive voice phrasing that allegedly implies that no one is responsible for the deaths. “Infant was killed” suffers from exactly the same alleged problem. On Alpert’s account, the child’s death should be reported as “Mother kills her infant” rather than as “Infant was killed.” I don’t recall ever seeing such incidents being reported using the “Mother kills infant” formulation, and I think it would be grossly unfair and insensitive to do so. Ditto for the reporting of car crashes. In both situations, it is up to the police, prosecutors and courts of law to determine the responsibility, if any, of the parties involved in the incident, not news reporters.

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