Accident or Collision?

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog, you know that I like to talk about the philosophical issues we run into when we use language.

But I sometimes talk to real-world writers (like police officers!) who wonder if all this theoretical stuff really matters. Postmodern language issues can seem far removed from everyday life.

But they’re not – and here’s an example. You may be aware that some jurisdictions have improved their procedures for dealing with vehicle accidents. The New York Police Department is a good example.

Some time ago, the NYPD instituted a number of changes in the way it investigates and documents vehicular crashes. Case in point: The word “accident” has been replaced with “collision.”

The reason? The word accident evokes something unfortunate that happened on its own. But the word collision suggests that something went wrong. It feels more like a police matter. (You can read about the NYPD policy changes here.)

Paul Steely White is the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group. He said the changes constitute “a very significant step toward a safer, more humane city.”

Words matter! “An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head,” he said. “Collisions can be prevented.”

Words are more than just labels we stick onto things. They shape our thinking and help us make effective decisions – if we’re wise enough to think about them and make wise choices.

a collision

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