The tragic Bronx Zoo crash this past week has been declared “accidental.” As devastating as this wreck is, perhaps we should start considering calling most accidents something other than “accidents.”
Like you, I am tired of standing in the middle of needless death and injury, and most traffic incidents are completely preventable indeed.
Please don’t call me heartless – I only point this out in the hopes that people take driving more seriously so we do have fewer wrecks. This includes the asshole who complained that I wasn’t driving fast enough in STOP-AND-GO TRAFFIC during rush hour a few mornings ago.
Yes, as some may claim, such as the lawyer* quoted in the Time article, this crash “could have been prevented” if the design of the Bronx River Parkway was different – if the roadway was wider, if the barriers and guardrails were 39 feet high, if God himself didn’t allow this to happen, etc. But how come NO ONE is at least wondering out loud whether this “could have been prevented” if the minivan was not traveling at 68mph in a 50mph zone?
Without going into the mumbo jumbo of mind-numbing physics, lower speeds mean more reaction time to correct a mistake, more buffer before a stable system (such as a car traveling in a straight line) transitions to an unstable system (such as the same car spinning out of control) because of an external force (such as the same car’s tire bumping a curb), less kinetic energy to crash through or fly over things like barriers and guardrails, less damaging injuries that rip organs to shreds and, most importantly, less heartbreak.
In Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), he writes:
We commonly refer to these moments as “accidents,” meaning that they were unintended or unforeseen events. Accident is a good word for describing such events as an otherwise vigilant driver being unable to avoid a tree that suddenly fell across the road. But consider the case of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock, who was tragically killed in 2007 when his rented SUV slammed into the back of a tow truck that was stopped on the highway, lights flashing, at the scene of a previous crash. Investigators learned that Hancock (who days before had crashed his own SUV) had a blood alcohol concentration nearly twice the legal limit, was speeding, was not wearing a seat belt, and was on a cell phone at the time of the fatal crash.
Despite the fact that all these well-established risky behaviors were present, simultaneously, the event was still routinely referred to in the press as an “accident.” The same thing happened with South Dakota congressman Bill Janklow. A notorious speeder who racked up more than a dozen tickets in the span of four years and had a poster of himself boasting that he liked to live in the “fast lane,” in 2003 Janklow blazed through a stop sign and killed a motorcyclist. The press repeatedly called it an “accident.”
The problem with this word, as the British Medical Journal pointed out in 2001 when it announced that it would no longer use it, is that accidents are “often understood to be unpredictable,” and thus unpreventable. Were the Hancock and Janklow crashes really unpredictable or unpreventable? They were certainly unintentional, but are “some crashes more unintentional then others”? Did they “just happen” or were there things that could have been done to prevent them, or at least greatly reduce the chances of their happening? Humans are humans, things will go wrong, there are instances of truly bad luck. And psychologists have argued that humans tend to exaggerate, in retrospect, just how predictable things were (the “hindsight bias”). The word accident, however, has been sent skittering down a slippery slope, to the point where it seems to provide protective cover for the worst and most negligent driving behaviors. This in turn suggests that so much of the everyday carnage on the road is mysteriously out of our hands and can be stopped or lessened only by adding more air bags (pedestrians, unfortunately, lack this safety feature).
Most crashes involve a violation of traffic laws, whether intentional or not. But even the notion of “unintentional” versus “intentional” has been blurred. In 2006, a Chicago driver reaching for a cell phone while driving lost control of his SUV, killing a passenger in a another car. The victim’s family declared, “If he didn’t drink or use drugs, then it’s an accident.” As absurd as that statement may sound, given that the driver intentionally broke the law, the law essentially agreed: The driver was fined $200. Similarly strange distinctions are found with “sober speeders.” There is a huge gulf in legal recrimination between a person who boosts his blood alcohol concentration way over the limit and kills someone and a driver who boosts his speedometer way over the limit and kills someone.
A similar bias creeps into news reports, which are often quick to note, when reporting fatal crashes, that “no drugs or alcohol were involved,” subtly absolving the driver from full responsibility – even if the driver was flagrantly exceeding the speed limit. Car companies would rightly be castigated if they advertised the joys of drinking and driving. But as a survey of North American car commercials by a group of Canadian researchers showed, it is quite acceptable to show cars being driven, soberly, in ways that a panel of viewers labeled “hazardous.” Nearly half of the more than two hundred ads screened (always carrying careful, if duplicitous, disclaimers) were considered by the majority of the panel to contain an “unsafe driving sequence,” usually marked by high speeds. Ads for SUVs were the most frequent offenders, and across all commercials, when drivers were shown, the majority were men.
I doubt anyone will drive more slowly and carefully though. Even after this.