In the beginning, streets in America were public spaces. Before the advent of the automobile, city streets were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses that included children at play and pedestrians at large.
When the automobile first showed up it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Browse through accounts in the New York Times of pedestrians dying after being struck by automobiles prior to 1930, and you’ll see that in nearly every case, the driver is charged with something like “technical manslaughter. And it wasn’t just New York. Across the country, drivers were held criminally responsible when they killed or injured people with their vehicles. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel and terms like “road-hog” and “speed-demon” were common. That image persisted well into the 1920s
Historically, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes was always placed on the driver. Public opinion was on the side of the pedestrian. There was a lot of anger in the early years and a lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets.
By 1930, most streets were primarily for motor vehicles where children did not belong. From the 1910s to the 1930s, a broad anti-automobile campaign reviled motorists as “road hogs” or “speed demons” and cars as “juggernauts” or “death cars.” Police had to become “traffic cops. The transition of streets as the exclusive domain of autos wasn’t evolution; it was more a bloody and sometimes violent revolution fueled by the auto industry.
If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars, which is practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago. The automobile industry lobbied to promote the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of “jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law. Streets were systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself. Collisions became accidents.*
The problem with the term “accident,” of course, is that it implies no one is at fault — that traffic injuries and deaths are just random, unpreventable occurrences and should be accepted as contributing to the loss of life.
In 198i7, I copyrighted an acronym, which is still tells it like it is: Most “accidents” are
C- Crashes that are
C- Caused by
I- Ignorance, (a lack of knowledge)
D- Drunkenness (from all types of drugs)
E- Errors (a lack of physical skills)
N- Negligence (a lack of mental skills) and/or
T- Thoughtlessness (whether it be from anger, frustration, distractions, or daydreaming)
On June 8 1997, at the opening of the Lifesavers Conference in Orlando, Florida, Ricardo Martinez, M.D., the Administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) kicked off a nationwide campaign “Crashes Aren’t Accidents” to encourage removal of the word “accident” from our vocabulary. In a short time, numerous organizations representing thousands of supporters joined the Administrator and literally “signed onto” the Proclamation as well.
Today, safe street advocates such as New York’s Transportation Alternatives (of which I am a member) spend a lot of time and energy trying to get people to take pedestrian fatalities seriously. A concerted effort is being made to stop calling them accidents and start calling them crashes. Crashes have causes and contributory factors, accidents have excuses. Using ‘accident’ encourages a sense of fatalism.
In 2012, on behalf of Transportation Alternatives (TA), I testified at a NY City Council hearing, which dealt with the lack of police investigations into “accidents.” I told the Council members that “I feel irrelevant. If drivers can injure and kill people with impunity because it’s just an accident, then why should I bother teaching people how to drive safely? Moreover, if there is nothing wrong with hitting a pedestrian, why should it be grounds for immediate failure on a road test. In fact, why conduct road tests at all? Once you have a license it doesn’t seem to matter if you know how to drive or not.”
“Families for Safe Streets,” and arm of TA, is comprised of victims of traffic violence and families whose loved ones were killed or severely injured by aggressive or reckless driving and dangerous conditions on New York City’s streets. They demand an end to traffic violence. They banded together in early 2014 to turn their grief into action and were instrumental in lowering the citywide speed limit in New York City, among other critical safety initiatives.
The NYPD adopted a policy to stop using the term “accident” to describe traffic collisions. Even former NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, notorious for turning a blind eye to traffic violence, issued a statement that the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event
A majority of fatal crashes are caused by intoxicated, speeding, distracted, or careless drivers and, therefore, are not accidents. More importantly, characterizing crashes as accidents, when a driver was intoxicated or negligent, may impede the recovery of crash victims by preventing them from assigning blame.
Using the term “crash” does not presume innocence or guilt If no one was at fault in a collision, this should be proved. “Crash” suggests something unintentional, and most collisions certainly are not premeditated. But it also suggests something that was beyond control; an incident with an excuse embedded within it. The phrase “it was just an accident” serves both as a claim of innocence and as an exoneration. Use of the term ‘accident’ is inappropriate until all the facts of the case are known
*To explore this subject deeper, read ‘Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” by Peter Norton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia .