Car Accident vs Car Crash:changing public talk

Last week a local NYC paper reported on a fatal hit and run incident.“Cops are searching for three women in connection with the hit-and-run that killed a local DJ last week one of whom may have been driving when the fatal accident occurred.”

The “fatal accident” got me thinking again about the conversation we’ve been having on this blog with Jeff Larason (Massachusetts) about the words “car accident” and “car crash”.

As Jeff points out, there are good reasons for this campaign that is trying to reframe the media’s use of the words “crash vs accident.” And if it contributes to people being more responsible drivers, I am all for it. That’s clear.

But, as a linguist who studies public language about health and safety I have been thinking more about what barriers the campaign faces.

Word substitution    

To borrow one of Jeff Larason’s good examples, when words like “health provider” enter the popular discourse to replace “doctor”/ “physician” (as it did in the 90s) that’s a lexical substitution – replacing one word for equivalent other. (Even though they’re not equivalent, health policy folks wanted to make it seem so).

These kinds of substitutions happen all the time:

waitress ——–server



Semantic distinctions

But the “car accident” – “car crash” word choice scenario assumes that people can make, and need to make, a clear distinction between two different types of events when it comes to car events. Wants the public to focus on the issue agency – someone caused this through negligence…vs. this a blameless “accident”.

We know that there are instances where most people can do this:

For example,

When a surgeon leaves a sponge in patient’s abdomen, we generally don’t see that as an “accident”. It’s negligence.

But we also know that people are less clear about other events:

“He had an accident at work.”

“She accidentally burnt the cake.”

“The accident happened when she slid on a patch of ice.”

I think there are at least 2 very good reasons why most speakers move back and forth between “accident” and other terms and may even default to “accident”.

  1. Most of us are not clear on the difference between a “hazard” and a “risk”.

A hazard is the bad thing that can happen. The risk is the likelihood that it will happen to you based on certain conditions.

  1. There are strong psychological and cultural drivers of how we see the world, our own personal agency, responsibility and fate.

   This is out of my control.

I found an interesting exchange showing just how people struggle with the distinctions in the terms “crash” and “accident”.

I also question how likely it is that reporters will be able to attend to and modify their language in this particularly situation when so much of the language they use, the word choices they make, are infused with non-literal language:

“the war on isis”

“epidemic of bullying”

I have seen some recent selective word choice on the part of the media.  The Chelsea bombing in NYC (Sept 2016).  They were generally cautious about using the word “terrorism” to immediately report the bombing event, as were some politicians.




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