“Driver in fatal one hundred mile-per-hour accident indicted.”
— Gresham PD press release
One of the things I do to stay abreast of local traffic news is to subscribe to press alerts from police jurisdictions all over the region. Not only does this help me find out about bicycle-involved collisions, it also gives me an unfortunate reminder of the immense carnage caused on our roads every day. The perspective I get from scanning press statements about people being hurt and killed every day on roads throughout Oregon is invaluable in maintaining a sense of urgency about issues of road design and traffic policy.
These statements are also an interesting window into how police and law enforcement officials use language.
One of the classic annoyances for people that pay attention to transportation language (and there are more of us than you might think!) is the use of the word “accident.” Accident has become the default term to describe traffic collisions in America. The problem is that the word engenders a sense of helplessness and inevitability about collisions when in fact nearly every collision can be prevented if we made better choices about personal responsibility and road design.
This morning, I received a press release from the Gresham Police Department that illustrated this issue perfectly. The statement was about a fatal collision in Gresham on May 14th. On that night a man who had been drinking got in his car and flew through the streets at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. When his car “rammed into another car” (according to the police), the person inside that other car died. The police have indicted the speeding driver on charges of first degree Manslaughter, seven counts of Reckless Endangerment and Driving While Suspended.
But here’s the headline of the release: “Driver in fatal one hundred mile-per-hour accident indicted” and a line in the release states,” Police are still looking for any witnesses to the fatal accident.”
I do not believe the actions a man who has a suspended license, drinks too much, hops into his car and drives recklessly, then kills another person and endangers the lives of at least seven others, should be considered simply a “mishap” or an “unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance” — both of which are common definitions for accident. I realize the man didn’t plan on killing anyone that night, nor does the Gresham PD intend to minimize this incident; but I think it’s worth pointing out that perhaps a better word could be used next time.