Earlier this year, the NYPD adopted a policy to stop using the term “accident” to describe traffic collisions. The San Francisco police department made similar changes a few months later. The problem with the term “accident,” of course, is that it implies no one was at fault — that traffic injuries and deaths are just random, unpreventable occurrences. It’s part of a cultural permissiveness toward dangerous driving, which in turn contributes to the loss of life.
News media, however, have been slower than police to acknowledge the shortcomings of the term “accident.” While even NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, notorious for turning a blind eye to traffic violence, issued a statement that “the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event,” major press outlets like the New York Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer still tend to use “accident” as the default term for car crashes, even in vehicular homicide cases.
One journalism institution could change that. The Associated Press produces the preeminent style guide for journalists, a reference used by news outlets around the country and around the world. While the AP has acknowledged the inherent problems with the term “accident,” it has yet to issue clear guidelines for journalists that would prevent the imprecise term from tacitly excusing thousands of deaths every year.
In its style guide, the Associated Press has no entry for “accident,” “collision,” or “crash.” However, in a supplemental guide for journalists called “Ask the Editor,” the AP advises journalists against using the term “accident.”
In one entry, a reporter asks editor David Minthorn: “I’ve always written traffic ‘crash,’ not ‘accident’ because the latter seems to imply no fault. But increasingly I see people calling crashes accidents. Does it matter?”
Minthorn responds: “Yes, avoid terms that might suggest a conclusion.” So there you have it, right? Not quite.