NYPD joins in banning the A word

In 2001, the late Ron Davis (then North American editor of the BMJ) and I wrote an editorial in the BMJ announcing that the publishing group would no longer permit the use of the word ‘accident’ when the intended meaning was ‘injury’. This was greeted by a storm of criticism in letters to the editor and general neglect on the part of many editors. Ron and I attempted to rebut the criticisms it remained an uphill battle. As I recall the only strong allies were CDC. Recently, however, support came from an unexpected source: the New York Police Department (NYPD).  Most media reports of car injuries refer to them as ‘accidents’ no matter what the circumstances, this is about to change in NY, at least as far as official reports are concerned.

The report in the New York times as reported on this website  http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2013/03/whats-word-nypd-changes-way-it-talks-about-traffic-deaths/4935/ is titled: It’s no ‘accident’. It leads with a story about, a 30-year-old artist who was hit and killed by the driver of a truck while riding his bicycle. The driver left the scene. …Lefevre’s family traveled to the United States from Canada to protest the lax investigation of their son’s death by the New York City Police DepartmentThe driver was never charged and the story states that “The NYPD’s attitude toward what happened … was summed up by a remark made by an officer to a local newspaper:

“There’s no criminality,” an NYPD spokesman told Metro. “That’s why they call it an accident.

The story continues: “But police in New York won’t be calling occurrences like the one that took Lefevre’s life “accidents” any longer – at least not officially. As part of a package of reforms in the way it handles traffic fatalities, the NYPD is now replacing the term “accident” with the word “collision.” “It’s not just semantics,” says the director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “It underscores a new approach.

As stated, “There has been a global movement over the past few years to change the way people talk about traffic deaths. The British group RoadPeace has been one of the advocacy organizations calling for change, and recently tried – unsuccessfully – to get The Guardian to change its style from “accident” to “crash” or “collision” – a change that was made by the peer-reviewed BMJ(British Medical Journal) back in 2001.  RoadPeace cites a key passage from a 2010 report by the Campaign for Global Road Safety:

The vocabulary of the road traffic injury epidemic helps to explain the neglect. While child deaths from, say, malaria are viewed as avoidable tragedies that can be stopped through government action, road traffic deaths and injuries are widely perceived as ‘accidents’ – unpredictable events happening on a random basis to people who have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The vocabulary is out of step with reality. Road traffic fatalities and injuries are accidents only in the narrow technical sense that they are not intended outcomes. They are eminently predictable, and we know in advance the profile of the victims. Of the 3,500 people who will die on the world’s roads today around 3000 will live in a developing country and at least half will be a pedestrian or vulnerable road user who is not driving a car. When it comes to road traffic injury, the future is not just predictable – it is also changeableFar from being the consequence of forces beyond human control, road traffic death and disability is in large measure the consequence of government action and inaction (My underlining). 

In New York, the police department has been criticized for many years by Transportation Alternatives and other advocacy groups for its reluctance to press criminal charges in traffic deaths. Even as the city has made enormous advances in street design and in education campaigns about traffic safety, enforcement has lagged.

The author of the piece notes that in the case of pedestrian deaths,  the words “no criminality is suspected” have become a kind of catchphrase for an attitude that deaths caused by automobiles are just part of the price we have to pay for living in a densely populated modern city. The NYPD’s way of talking about and handling these cases has added to an atmosphere that makes it difficult for prosecutors to prove that reckless drivers are acting outside of the standards that would be observed by a “reasonable person.

But the changes in NYPD policy indicate the department’s attitude might finally be shifting along with its language. Until now, the department’s Accident Investigation Squad has only been deployed when a crash victim was dead or assessed as “likely to die.” Now, that unit – soon to be renamed the Collision Investigation Squad – will respond when there has been a critical injury or when a Police Department duty captain believes the extent of the injuries and/or unique circumstances of a collision warrant such action.” “In the past, the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event.

As a footnote, I want to stress that this report emphasized the important role played by r family members and friends of crash victims in bringing these changes about. This is something I have advocated for many years.

The report was written by Sarah Goodyear.  

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