President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure bill is seeking to change everything about the automotive and transportation industries, from the function of our headlights to the sustainability of our ports. Buried in all those pages, though, is something smaller: A change in the way we refer to car crashes, which is designed to move away from the auto industry propaganda term “car accident.”
Buried in Section 24102, Highway Safety Programs, is the following:
(a) In General.—Section 402 of title 23, United States Code, is amended—
(1) by striking “accidents’’ each place it appears and inserting “crashes’’;
(2) by striking “accident’’ each place it appears and inserting “crash’’
It’s a small linguistic change, but it’s kind of a big deal. After all, we don’t call a plane crash a “plane accident.” It sounds absurd. And the decision for car crashes to be called accidents was very strategically adopted by the automotive industry to soften hearts against the danger of the automobile.
Let’s take a trip back in time. Imagine it’s 1921, and you, a modern person, see a car strike a pedestrian. If you were to describe this incident as a “car accident,” people would look at you like you’d grown another head. Media depictions of cars at the time often framed them as violent death machines that were a danger to everyone around them. Seriously. The New York Times referred to the literal global catastrophe of World War I as “less appalling than the horrors of peace.”
And that was a fairly general view. Cars were big and dangerous, and there weren’t a ton of laws mandating their safety or a driver’s conduct behind the wheel. Any time a crash took place, judges usually ruled in favor of the pedestrian, Vox writes, because cars were generally to blame. Saying a person is at fault for being struck by a car would sound as silly as saying your car was hit by a deer.
Things began to change, though. As you can imagine, automakers didn’t like their cars being framed as death on wheels. The people who drove cars —usually wealthy people, who were the only ones who could afford the luxury of an automobile — also weren’t exactly stoked that they were guaranteed to be at fault for any collision.
So they joined forces and tried to develop a series of laws that would govern the rules of the road. Crucially, though, these rules often governed pedestrians. People were confined to the sides of the road and only allowed to cross the street at certain, specially laid-out junctures. If you crossed the road anywhere else, you were jaywalking, and it was your fault that you were hit by a car.
The auto industry also did something genius. It created The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, which was part of and later became the Automobile Manufacturers Association, and it provided a very crucial service. Because it knew the most about cars, it would write your newspaper articles for you. Reporters just had to send in vague details of a traffic collision, and the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce would spin it into an art form that shifted the blame from the cars and their drivers by referring to collisions as “accidents.” Those articles were then published in newspapers around America.
Of course, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce wasn’t the only coalition to start using the term “car accident.” It likely didn’t invent the phrase. But it did help distribute the phrase to a wide variety of people — and the people who control the printing presses have often been the ones who control the dissemination and evolution of language and grammar. If the newspapers were calling these collisions “car accidents,” then that’s what they must be.
It was, basically, an exercise in propaganda. Car crashes made automobiles look bad. Car accidents shifted the blame, creating the linguistic version of the shrug emoji. A crash implies a car hit something. An accident implies that something happened to the car, or the car did something unintentional. It’s a small shift, but it has big consequences in the way we describe a circumstance where a person can be seriously injured or killed.
And that evolving public perception played a role in the steady adoption of the car as one’s main source of transportation. It enabled the passage of laws that placed vehicles on a more important tier than the pedestrian. It’s part of how we ended up with cities that are totally unwalkable because they were designed from a car’s perspective. “Accident” is just one word, but it helped reframe an entire country’s perspective.
In the last few years, various movements have sprung up that have demanded the official term for “car accident” be changed to “car crash” as a way to keep automakers, legislators, and drivers accountable for the damage that can be wrought behind the wheel. And the federal government appears to be listening.
Will the official change from “accident” to “crash” change anything? Probably not — at least not right away. The terms are fairly interchangeable in the English language, and most connotational shifts take generations to catch on. But it’s a crucial first step to creating accountability for automakers and drivers in a legal and governmental perspective.