Words are powerful. Choose them carefully

road traffic collision

If you accidentally spill coffee on your trousers, that’s one thing, but if a driver’s speeding car slams into a bus stop, killing a child in the process, it’s clearly different…so why does the language we use rarely distinguish between the two? While one can be dismissed as an accident, the other deserves to be described more carefully – nothing less than collision or crash will do.

After all, words are powerful. It’s the reason we avoid the term ‘road safety’, preferring instead ‘road danger reduction’, which far more accurately defines the challenge at hand.

When collisions occur on the railways, at sea or in the air, there are enquiries to determine their causes. Those responsible for piloting the planes, driving the trains or skippering the ships are suspended from duty pending the outcome and appropriate changes to systems, regulation or the law are implemented swiftly.

It’s not altogether clear why the same thing doesn’t happen following every road fatality in Britain, but until it does, let’s at least be mindful of the way we describe road danger.

When the media use the term ‘accident’, it implies the collision wasn’t preventable. The term ‘crash’ does not imply the driver is always to blame, it simply acknowledges that the matter deserves serious investigation and remedial measures to try and prevent it happening again. It’s an approach that has allowed other European countries to introduce a Vision Zero – a serious attempt to prevent all deaths on the road.

Britain is a long way off implementing its own Vision Zero, but choosing our words carefully when we describe road danger would be a meaningful first step.

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  1. Paul Miller


    I agree 100% with this. It annoys me when I hear traffic reports on the radio that refer to an ‘accident’ as the very word implies that it is just something that happened that could not be avoided. How wrong. Accidents are extremely rare, as the collision is undoubtedly a result of poor driving standards, whether that is speed, lack of attention or just inconsiderate driving.

  2. Tony Williams


    A week or two ago I made a comment here suggesting that words should be used carefully, so I need to consider carefully the ideas you’ve put forward above.

    Fine until the last two sentences – and then you introduce “a Vision Zero”. I think part of the matter of carefully choosing words is selecting ones that readers will understand. I suspect that if 100 people in the street were presented with that and asked what it meant, “being registered blind” might be the answer you’d get most.

  3. Tony Williams


    To Paul Miller (above): the Chambers Dictionary definition of accident is “an unexpected event….something which happens without planning or intention…” Other dictionaries have similar definitions. Their definitions do not include your concept of something that could not be avoided.

    We should not only choose words carefully, we should also not adjust their meanings to suit our argument. ETA have done this in the way they contrast spilling coffee on your trousers and a speeding car that “slams” into a bus stop. Suppose you spill coffee on someone else’s trousers? Would that be more or less of an “accident”? In both cases it would probably be unintentional. In both cases it would probably be avoidable as well, if the person with the coffee had looked where they were going, or walked more carefully, or not filled the cup to the brim to start with. Or perhaps if another person hadn’t stuck their leg out and caused the one with the coffee to trip over it.

    Events like the one in Hayes last week, when 16-year-olds were killed by a speeding car while waiting at a bus stop, are terrible. Perhaps there are drivers who try to excuse themselves and the awful consequences of their irresponsible behaviour by saying “It was an accident” as if that lets them off the hook. If so, it may be that using a word like “crash” will reduce the opportunity for those drivers to think that what happened was unavoidable as well as unintended. The way to pursue that argument will be to use words very carefully and according to their real meanings.

  4. Mary Fisher


    “… an approach that has allowed other European countries to introduce a Vision Zero – a serious attempt to prevent all deaths on the road.”
    Does it work?

    • The ETA


      Yes, in the sense that it’s a meaningful target…their systematic approach to rad danger reduction means that every death is considered unacceptable and acted upon accordingly

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