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Why You Should Call Your Bike Crash a “Crash” and Not an “Accident”


When you talk about a cyclist getting hit by a car while riding their bike, what’s the word you use to describe that incident?

Most people would say: an accident. “My friend was in a bike accident.” “I saw a bike accident on my way to work this morning.”

But increasingly, safety advocates — Bay Area Bicycle Law included — are changing the vocabulary of collisions to be less soft and more accurate.

It’s natural for most of us to a call a crash an accident, simply because of habit; it’s a term we use all the time for collisions. For example, you probably know that most people talking about a vehicular collision would say “car accident”. That’s just what it’s been called, for as long as most of us have been alive.

But it’s time to think about what we’re really talking about. The word “accident” doesn’t come close to conveying the trauma, violence, and often, actual fault, that are at play during a crash.

Even if a driver accidentally hits a cyclist because they were texting and driving, they are still at fault for the crash. Of course they weren’t aiming for the cyclist; they were just distracted. But to call that situation an “accident” underplays the driver’s active choice to be distracted while driving and not paying attention to the safety of every other person on the road around him.

Every driver has a responsibility not to crash into other cars, cyclists, or pedestrians.

A recent article for the New York Times offered up this quote to explain why the change from “accident” to “crash” is such an important one,

“‘When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,’’ Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a driver safety conference this month at the Harvard School of Public Health. ‘In our society,’ he added, ‘language can be everything.’

Changing semantics is meant to shake people, particularly policy makers, out of the implicit nobody’s-fault attitude that the word ‘accident’ conveys.”

And it’s true. The way you talk about the things that happen to people out on the road (or anywhere) has a tremendous impact on how the people involved think about every aspect of the case.

When advocating for our clients against insurance companies who want to avoid paying out to cover victim’s medical costs incurred by being hit by a car, truck, or bus, we use the word “crash” instead of “accident”, because it more accurately describes what happened.

The easier it is for the at-fault parties to brush off the full extent of their responsibility for the crashes they cause, the harder it is for victims to get the compensation and support that they deserve. We need to do less to exonerate those who behave recklessly and dangerously, and do more to respect the people who end up picking up the pieces of their personal and financial lives after being harmed by these at-fault drivers.

And we aren’t the only ones who think so. The New York Times report continues:

“On Jan. 1, the state of Nevada enacted a law, passed almost unanimously in the Legislature, to change ‘accident’ to ‘crash’ in dozens of instances where the word is mentioned in state laws, like those covering police and insurance reports.

New York City adopted a policy in 2014 to reduce fatalities that states the city ‘must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere accidents,’ and other cities, including San Francisco, have taken the same step.

At least 28 state departments of transportation have moved away from the term ‘accident’ when referring to roadway incidents, according to Jeff Larason, director of highway safety for Massachusetts. The traffic safety administration changed its own policy in 1997, but has recently become more vocal about the issue.”

This is all progress in the right direction.

The more honest we are about the facts of a crash, the better we can serve every party involved. We cannot simply brush the truth under a rug because we don’t want to hurt feelings or punish a driver who caused a needless, brutal, life-changing crash for a cyclist. We can’t ignore the victims who suffer because it feels uncomfortable to blame a driver.

The next time you talk about traffic collisions, make sure you are using vocabulary that speaks accurately. While it may seem small — after all, changing the words we say can’t necessarily stop a driver from being distracted and hitting a cyclist — making these subtle changes to how we think about collisions, drivers, and cyclists, will help us all do better.

Life will always have problems. The best we can do is face them honestly and create a framework that helps those who truly deserve our help to get it.