Crash vs Accident: not just tomāto vs tomáto

Suppose scientists had initially called “global warming” “global heating”; health insurers had called “managed care” “restricted care”; historians called the “holocaust”, “ murder”, or the European Union called Syrian and Pakistanis denied access into Europe,” refugees” instead of “migrants”?

“Splitting hairs” ? “Word-smithing?”    Not so much.

To some degree, we all see these words above as meaning different things.  This sensitivity to language is due to our language competence (no matter what language).  We also have the ability to consciously and subconsciously make choices about the words we use. Linguists call this “communicative competence”.

Communicative competence is so hardwired in us that the 4 year old can protest  that he didn’t “steal” his big sister’s iPad, he was just “borrowing” it.

Crash vs Accident   car

So what to make of transportation experts and advocates wanting to change how we all talk about that too-often-occurring event of a car hiting another car, an object, a person or animal? Instead of calling it an “accident” they want us to call it a “crash”.

Transportation experts tell us that traffic fatalities are soaring and most traffic accidents are preventable and are caused by human error.

In my hometown, NYC, Vision Zero Action Plan launched in 2014, is aimed at reducing pedestrian fatalities. The city “must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere ‘accidents”. Many states are similar new language initiatives.

And as pointed out by Irwin Dawid in the Blog Planetizen, a pedestrian advocates group in NYC  is urging people to take a pledge

I will not call traffic crashes “accidents.” I will educate others about why “crash” is a better word.

A  Live Linguistic Experiment  midieval

For linguists like me, this is one of those live experiments we can track and use in class to teach about how people and language work.

Think of it – powerful entities, policy makers and the media resources behind them, are turning to language, in fact one simple word, and hoping it will do some heavy lifting. They’re hoping that using the word “crash” will help change the mental frame many have that crashes are inevitable, like hurricanes, or bad hair days.

I’m not going to fall into the semantic pothole of trying to tease out the differences between unintentional events, happenstance, mishaps and the like. I’ll leave that to philosophers.

But from a linguists point of view there are at least 5 characteristics of people and language that are in play in this crash/accident issue:

  1. Words and phrases are powerful drivers of our perceptions and feelings about things. Words cause us to create a mental image. Think of what you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the sentence. The prisoner was locked in a cell.  The prisoner was locked in a tomb.
  1. Words also tap into pre-existing mental frames we have. You can think of a mental frame like a short script – a quick way for the brain to chunk and store information. So you may have a script for “cell” that says “confined space, loss of freedom, punishment.” And for “tomb” your mental frame might be, “death”, “hidden space” or something like “forever lost.” Importantly these frames can be influenced.
  1. New words and terms routinely and rapidly enter the culture and they influence how we think about a phenomenon – the evidence is legion: right-to-life, Y2K, managed care, cyberbullying, text me, marriage equality, anchor babies (Donald Trump’s term for babies born to illegal aliens). With consistent exposure to specific words and images in new contexts this language will enter our usage and modify our thinking over time.
  1. Language is often opaque to us – we hear it, use it, without really noticing it. (Exceptions, for instance, are when we hear something said incorrectly, or when something is said poetically or particularly memorably). But when the way we refer to something does change in ways that are more in line with our beliefs or needs we feel good and will use them more readily. An example, up until about 10 years ago the medical field didn’t use the term “error” publicly to refer to its actions. When research into the number of errors was studied and revealed, the term entered the formal lexicon. Patients and health consumers felt vindicated – doctors and health systems can and do make errors.
  1. Language is a very personal possession. One of our most personal. We don’t take kindly to others telling us how to speak. Note how two people in couples’ therapy can find it very hard to change how they talk to each other, even with a lot of coaching. We have to really want to change how we say something. So the subtler more adaptive approach – having officials consistently using “crash” may work better with larger percentage of the American population than dictating the change.

So ban the word “car accident”?

Well , not quite.

Just let language do what it does so well – make and re-make meaning.


Some Handy References

Communicative competence –

Hymes, D.H. (1972). “On communicative competence”. In Pride, J.B.; Holmes, J. Sociolinguistics: selected readings. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Linguistic competence – 

Chomsky, Noam. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hymes, Dell. 1971. Competence and performance in linguistic theory. Language acquisition: Models and methods (1971)

Mental Frames – 

Lakoff, George 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George 2004. Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing.


1 reply
  1. Jeff Larason
    Jeff Larason says:

    Your final question misrepresents the discussion. “Ban the word accident?” That’s not what is being called for. The call is to have people use the word correctly. Accidents exist. When there is an accident, call it an accident. However people use the word to describe events that not, in many cases they are oxymoron’s. Daily you can find media make reference to intentional events calling them “accidents”. This happens with road rage, vehicular suicide and even with murder committed with a vehicle – all intentional events. While those may be in the minority of crashes, what is in the majority of crashes are crimes such as DUI, distracted driving, and high speed crashes. These are also intentional events. Drivers knowingly break the law, knowingly endanger others and do so fully aware of the high risk of crashing. The predictable result of these crimes are not accidents. A traffic reporter looking down from a helicopter has no idea of the circumstances of an incident on the road. She knows it’s a crash, but has no knowledge to make a statement that what she is seeing is an “accident”. If a reporter is aware than an incident was not intentional and was not a result of a criminal act, then it could and should be called an “accident”. I understand that the language lives, but the harm cause by people making the assumption that these tragedies are unpredictable, chance events is leading to a culture that accepts 32,000 deaths each year.

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