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When Cars Collide, Safety Advocates Say It's No 'Accident'

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When you see two cars collide, what do you call it? You might say it's a car accident. Safety advocates want you to call it a car crash. Already places like Nevada, New York City and San Francisco have swapped the word crash for accident in their laws and policies. The New York Times reports this reverses nearly a century of cultural thinking.

And to get some historical perspective on this clash of words, we've called Peter Norton. He's a historian at the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. Welcome to the program.

PETER NORTON: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Before we get to this history, what's the distinction between an accident and a crash that these safety advocates feel needs to be made?

NORTON: Well, there's a lot of disagreement about that, but I think the advocates say that the word accident has a connotation that it's a chance event, something that's bound to happen; it's inevitable; it's not something that could ever be completely prevented. And I think they see it as absolving people of responsibility for their actions.

CORNISH: And today we're very much used to hear and using the word accident. And you've found that this preference for accident was actually pushed in a public awareness campaign or campaigns in the early 1900s. Who was behind it, and what were they trying to accomplish?

NORTON: Well, if you go back more than a hundred years ago, manufacturing was big, and manufacturing jobs were dangerous jobs. A lot of them were heavy machinery, belts turning at high speeds, lathes. All kinds of machinery like that could be very dangerous, and people got hurt. And when they got hurt, it was to the employer's advantage legally to call it an accident.

CORNISH: So then the automobile comes along, and how does this industry embrace the concept?

NORTON: For the auto industry, it was a complicated thing. I mean, they wanted people to be able to drive cars, and they wanted drivers to not have to bear an extraordinary burden of responsibility such that driving would become unattractive.

At the same time, they didn't want reckless drivers creating a bad image for the entire industry, so the auto industry generally favored tough penalties for reckless drivers. But at the same time, they wanted to redirect responsibility to other street users like pedestrians.

So a lot like the industrial safety people invented this cartoon character called Otto Know Better (ph), who was careless and getting injured, the pro-automobile people - manufacturers, auto clubs, auto dealers - invented caricatures of careless pedestrians because most of the people cars were killing then were pedestrians, not other people in cars.

CORNISH: You know, upwards of 38,000 people were killed in deadly car crashes or accidents in 2015. That's according to the National Safety Council. And that was an 8 percent increase over the year before. Why does language matter?

NORTON: Well, if we continue to define these calamities as accidents, they're easier to ignore because we think of them as the inevitable side effects of modern living. But if we can call them crashes, we can redefine them as something we can control.

I'd like to mention the example of William Haddon. He was a traffic accident expert from a generation ago, and he saw as the biggest obstacle to diminishing the very high traffic fatalities of his time - he saw the biggest obstacle to that in language. People were calling these accidents, and he wanted to look at traffic accidents as the way a disease expert looks at disease - as something we can control. And the word accident defeats the whole notion that we can control this issue, and it's like a surrender before we've even started.

CORNISH: Historian Peter Norton of the University of Virginia, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NORTON: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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