Talking Michigan Transportation

Why we say "crash" and not "accident"

November 07, 2019 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 1 Episode 11
Talking Michigan Transportation
Why we say "crash" and not "accident"
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Jeff talks about the reason safety experts insist on the term “crash” instead of “accident.” His guest is Lloyd Brown, director of communications at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), who has been advocating on the issue since his days at the Washington State Department of Transportation two decades ago. He wrote about the issue in his blog after MDOT produced a video on the topic.

Later, they discuss the results of a number of transportation ballot issues decided Tuesday in cities and states across the country.

- For Transportation Safety, Words Matter: ‘Crash,’ not ‘Accident’

- Crash, Not Accident

Crash not accident

Before the Associated Press issued a style change for terms describing transportation collisions, a 2015 Vox column covered the evolution and history of the terms, observing that we don’t say "plane accident." We shouldn’t say "car accident" either.

Yet, the CEO at Boeing did just that in his Oct. 29 Congressional testimony.

The background also includes how jaywalking became something worthy of citations from law enforcement. As Vox explains, "At the time, the word 'jay' meant something like rube or hick - a person who didn't know how to behave in a city. So these groups promoted use of the word jay walker as a way to shame people who didn't obey traffic laws."

- Associated Press Cautions Journalists That Crashes Aren’t Always “Accidents”

- We don’t say “plane accident.” We shouldn’t say “car accident” either.

- Boeing CEO: These heartbreaking accidents are now part of our legacy

- Jaywalkers, Jayhawkers, Jay-Towns and Jays – a Pedestrian History and Etymology of “Jaywalking”

Transportation on the ballot

Jeff and Lloyd also talk about transportation ballot issues across the country and how they fared Tuesday. Especially of interest were the results in the state of Washington and the vote in Denver where Mayor Michael Hancock has committed to doubling the share of trips taken by foot, bike, bus, and train by 2030 while reducing solo driving drips to 50 percent.

Voters also approved measures in the state of Maine and cities of Houston, Albuquerque, Cincinnati, and Springfield, MO.

- Washington voters favoring Tim Eyman’s I-976 to slash car-tab fees in Tuesday’s election results

- Denver voters give the city its own transportation department


Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT communications director Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. It is Wednesday, November 6th, 2019, and I'm very pleased to have a special guest, a very good friend of mine, and a mentor - which sounds odd, because he's younger than me – but Lloyd Brown, who is my counterpart, the Director of Communications at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and an experienced transportation communicator, having worked in Washington State for several years before he came to Washington DC to run communications for the Association, and this week I want to take on a couple topics.

First, the discussion about “crash,” and why that’s the right term for collisions and incidents that happen when vehicles run into other vehicles, or people, or buildings, or just about anything, rather than the common nomenclature which is “accident,” and why the Associated Press, quite some time ago, changed their Style Book to say ‘let's call these things what they are, crashes,’ and why others, even before AP made that change, had been pushing for it, and Lloyd picked up on a video that MDOT made to promote this concept. We released it just recently, and Lloyd wrote a blog about it recalling his history with the word, and how he got there, so, first, thanks for coming on Lloyd.

Lloyd Brown: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Jeff Cranson: And after we talk a little bit about that, we're going to go over some ballot issues that happened to pass Tuesday, November 5th across the country. Some interesting ones related to transportation, mostly progressive, and some positive things, but not everywhere, and we'll talk about that, but Lloyd, spell out what you did in your in your blog, and why you were so intrigued at MDOT resurrecting this crash versus accident discussion.

Lloyd Brown: Well, I was working at Washington State Department of Transportation, and this must have been, oh, in the early 2000s. I was describing to some executives in a meeting about an incident that was taking place right then on the highway, and I described it as an accident when I was interrupted, and cut off, and the engineer, who was one of the engineers I was speaking to, said ‘there are no accidents, this is a crash,’ and I'm pretty sure I rolled my eyes, and pretty sure I thought that was a ridiculous thing, but as we began to talk about it, not just then, but later, it really did begin to dawn on me that words matter, and how we frame, how we describe situations, ultimately, can help us understand some context, and help us understand some deeper meaning in the whole thing, and well, you know, this isn't a metaphysical conversation. The fact is that these really aren't accidents, these are situations where there are contributing causes, and there, you know, the people are making decisions, and they result in crashes.

Jeff Cranson: So, what struck me about the timing of this - this happened to all coincide with our release of the video, and your posting of your blog with the Chief Executive Officer at Boeing testifying before Congress - some very angry members of Congress - about the failure of Boeing, and US regulators, to identify and correct the flaws in the design of the 737 Max jets that led to two crashes that killed 346 people, and in his testimony, in his opening remarks, the CEO called them ‘plane accidents,’ and long ago, discussion about this - a lot of the headlines that you see in stories that were written about this, this concept of crash versus accident, and some things I've seen on Twitter - say we would never call it a plane accident, let’s stop calling it a car accident, but sure enough he did, and I have to believe that was on purpose.

Lloyd Brown: Oh, I have no doubt it was on purpose. There are some very smart people who are working on his testimony, and it does point to the fact that when we call it an accident, we really are letting somebody off the hook for responsibility, and look, it may be a situation where the sun was in somebody's eyes, or it was a wet road, there were other contributing factors, but at the end of the day there are, when you're operating a vehicle on the highway, there's some accountability when you're behind the wheel, and if we call them ‘crashes,’ there's accountability of the common accidents. Things just happen, and we shrug our shoulders and move on. 34 thousand people a year die on our roads, and it just is too many. At some point we have to step up and say, ‘enough is enough, let's really start calling it what it is.’

Jeff Cranson: So you know, some of the stuff that gets people really thinking about this, and why there are groups out there like Transportation Alternatives, and Families for Safe Streets are because they've been arguing for some time that ‘accident,’ makes it seem like crashes are inevitable rather than preventable, and in a subtle way, they make the case that it normalizes the crash, and it discourages us from looking more deeply into the causes, you know, whether it's alcohol, or reckless driving, or not driving for conditions, snow, rain, you know, you mentioned wet pavement, the term black ice, you hear often in Michigan, and you probably heard that in Washington State, another complete misnomer, but it sounds like, you know, like ‘what, it's not my fault, because there was black ice,’ so the push has been to at least get that into the vernacular, so that people use the right word, and say it's their fault, which is kind of what you got at in your blog, but there's really - and you researched some of this in the past, and I think, again, for what you wrote last week - this goes back a long time to when cars were first really starting to proliferate the public roads in the country, and there were a lot of run-ins with other vehicles, and with pedestrians, and they were even described in some headlines as ‘killing machines,’ and they weren't called accidents at first, and the industry - just like the, you know, the hardcore manufacturing industry before them - went on a campaign to try to make ‘accident,’ the word that people used on purpose so that you didn't think it was because of cars.

Lloyd Brown: Yeah, and there are, amazingly, quite a bit of politics around the finite resource that we call ‘the traveling lane,’ you know, people argue over who should have who, and I mean people, whether people should have primacy in the roads, or we should give it all over to vehicles. That kind of ongoing debate between people who are advocating for bicyclists or pedestrians, versus let's say, you know, freight or, you know, the throughput of vehicles, that kind of discussion goes on all the time in transportation circles, and they’re not easily solved conflicts, but what you're describing is some of the earliest sort of battles that were waged, and ultimately the convenience of the automobile won out over the legitimate rights of the pedestrian, and that’s what we're living with today in many cases, and that's where that language comes from, so you know, it's just one more reason why it's maybe a long time coming, but not too late to begin to use the right language when we're talking about the situation.

Jeff Cranson: Well, that effort was so successful that it helped you know create the crime, and the shame of jaywalking, and you know, I didn't know that history until I researched it, but that was because ‘jay’ was a term used to describe somebody who was a ‘rube,’ or a ‘hick,’. It was a pejorative, and so somebody that was crossing outside of a crosswalk was deemed to be a ‘rube,’ and therefore it's their own dumb fault.

Now, obviously, pedestrians do bear responsibility for their own safety, and we’ve got new things going on with technology, just like we do with cars, there's such thing as ‘walking and texting,’ which can be dangerous in itself, but we've kind of swung the pendulum all the way the other way now with a lot of a lot of cities, a lot of urban areas going to great lengths to make things more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, and I know that's important to you as a cyclist, and somebody who sometimes rides all the way in from your home in Maryland to downtown DC, so you know, what's that like?

Lloyd Brown: Yeah, and then you add to it things like e-scooters, and I'm seeing more and more of these motorized skateboards, and I don’t know what those single wheel things are that people are hopping aboard, and they have a little electronic controller, and then they’re rolling around. There are all kinds of things that are rolling down the sidewalks and going down the streets, and so, in the modern city today, it really is something where whether you're a pedestrian or a driver of a vehicle, you have to pay attention, and keep your head on a swivel, but competing for that space, and being in a situation where everybody has a right to move, and the idea of movement is the idea of freedom, and we want to be able to move freely - all of that comes together, and it comes back into the language we use to describe the situation is loaded, and we have to be careful about it, and I think that it matters when we talk about the different modes, and we've got to be careful.

I've worked with state DOTs around the country and when we’re looking at the syntax that's used around some of the transportation priorities within our departments, we do a communication audit of the way that we describe our roadways, and the vehicles, and what is the principle, you know, what is the priority, and almost always our state DOTs are prioritizing vehicles over people, and it’s something that you and I have talked about, and I think strongly that we should be talking about people, and the movement of people and goods rather than just the movement of vehicles.

Jeff Cranson: Well, your Association is, you know, has ‘highways,’ in the name, so, it's inevitable.

Lloyd Brown: [Laughing] And ‘transportation,’ Jeff, and ‘transportation.’

Jeff Cranson: Yes, so yeah, I think that, to me, this role of people who communicate about transportation is to just be really, really vigilant with media, with reporters, and just remind them every time, and you saw that I did today on what was otherwise a very good story, very thorough account of what's going on in Congress, and some truly bipartisan support to look at the increase in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities across the country, and the McClatchy reporter, you know, used the term ‘accident,’ and when I sent him a note about it, and said ‘hey, really good story, but just to be clear, you know AP style is crash,’ he right away did a mea culpa, wrote back very humbly and said, ‘you’re right,’ and you know, was willing to correct it, and I ask my staff to do that with reporters all the time, and some - most - are pretty good about it. Some think you're splitting hairs, but as you said, words do matter, and I almost wonder if we'll still be doing this by the time some other word comes into vogue.

Lloyd Brown: Well, as long as you're going to tilt against that windmill, Jeff. I'll be your Sancho Panza, or whatever that character's name is. We can we can go after it together, but-

Jeff Cranson: Lloyd going with the literary references, I like it.

Lloyd Brown: Well, I think it's my, you know, the writer background that I have, and this idea of the media ecology, and the framing that we use to describe the world around us, and so whether it's crash versus accident, or some other way of describing our transportation system, you know, ultimately we should really pay attention to the way in which we use the language.

Jeff Cranson: Well sure, I mean, the outgrowth of that is ‘dangerous intersection,’ right?

Lloyd Brown: Yes, yeah, well, and we both were on an email the other day where a researcher who cares very deeply about safety, and is challenging some ideas of safety, kept using the term ‘accident,’ all throughout the research that he was doing. So, it's not isolated to DOTs, or just state DOTs, it’s really prevalent throughout law enforcement, prevalent throughout the media, and it’s, you know, it's common vernacular with the public, so this isn't an easy hill to climb, it's going to take us some time to get people to used different language, but you pointed out - it started that we were talking about ‘killing machines,’ so you know, it wasn't just a sweet BMW racing down the road, it used to be a ‘killing machine.’

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, that's a good point. So, let's talk about some of those ballot issues across the country, and what voters had to say about transit and other transportation-related issues. One that you followed very closely is in your home state of Washington, and it's not so good in terms of transportation funding.

Lloyd Brown: Well, it really isn’t, and it really, I think, for local leaders in the Pacific Northwest today, or at least up in the Washington State area, are, you know, they're faced with quite a conundrum. In that state, there’s the ability for the people to put an initiative on the ballot, and the threshold in terms of signatures is really rather low, so this is, I think, the third time in Washington state that this particular concept, the idea that car tabs, licensing fees will be $30.00 has been on a statewide ballot, and in this particular case it was successful last night, and this particular proposal is going to hit - it’s going to hit some of the western Washington counties and cities very hard, and particularly Sound Transit, which has been expanding, you know, just came out - I don’t know if it was last week or the week before - the updated numbers that Washington and the City of Seattle has lead the nation in reducing the number of cars on the road, or people, registered car owners in their area, so the expansion of transit there has been rapid, and it's been embraced, and so this is going to hurt them.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, absolutely, and it's incredibly short-sighted, but I can see why it easily passes. I mean, that gets into a discussion about governing by referendum, or by ballot issue, and whether we elect representatives to use sound judgment, and have some courage, and make difficult decisions, and if that's not why we elect our legislators, then should we just do everything with the vote of the people, and that I guess we're a democracy, and not a republic as you pointed out. Are you fearful-

Lloyd Brown: Yeah.

Jeff Cranson: -You know, sitting where you do in Washington DC, and looking at the broader landscape, that this is a trend, because at the same time, as we know, some cities, some big cities passed some pretty progressive initiatives, especially for transit.

Lloyd Brown: Well, there was, and one of the things that we find as we follow these around the country every year is that people are willing to pay for transportation when they see a direct benefit to themselves. I think Maine also had a pretty expansive…

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, $105 million bonds.

Lloyd Brown: Yeah, had an opportunity to expand some bonding, so the people in Maine, you know, felt like the government, the leaders there in that state had made the case for the benefits that they were going to receive, and really, when we talk about these things we know that the benefits can’t just be kind of theoretical, esoteric benefits. They've got to be direct benefits, you know, that the bonds are going to help pay for this particular thing, or this particular set of maintenance priorities, or fix these particular bridges, and that specificity really does help to motivate people to go to the ballot, which is one reason why we see transit does fairly well at the ballot box throughout the country.

People want good transit in their communities. If they don't ride it themselves, they want it as an option for others, so that's always been something that has been, you know, well researched, and pretty steady over the years, that the northwest, up in the Seattle, I think, it goes beyond, you know, they want good transit, but in this particular case they also don't want their license fees for their vehicles to be so much, so perhaps there’s enough way that Sound Transit will have to come back, or other leaders will have to come back and say ‘okay, these are priorities that you've already approved, or that you’ve said before that you want, so how are we going to pay for them?’ And look at some different ways of generating revenue.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, in that sense, transportation isn't that different from education, and other things, that when you ask people if it's important they say ‘yes,’ and if you ask them if they value it they say ‘yes,’ and if you ask them if they want to pay for it they say ‘no.’ You know, Colorado - I don’t know if you looked at that at all, but there was a bit of a mixed message there, and that a statewide transportation issue failed, but in Denver, there was a charter change voted on, overwhelmingly approved, to make the Denver Department of Transportation a cabinet-level agency, with direct access to the mayor there, and the mayor, Michael Hancock, sees this as part of his grand plan to double the share of trips that are taken on foot, or by bike, or bus, or train by 2030, and reduce solo driving trips by 50%.

So really, I think what I saw as I looked over these things - Houston passed a big one, $3.5 billion for transit projects; Cincinnati took the first step toward a more robust transit system there that would actually be countywide, and the second step is going to require all of Hamilton County to vote on a tax. So, we'll see how that goes, but really, you see in these transportation votes what you see with everything else in our country - that there’s a real urban/ rural divide on these things.

Lloyd Brown: I think, too, in the Colorado, the Denver situation, that there was a promise of savings of $4 or $5 million a year by making this move, and they pointed toward efficiency in addition to the services that were provided, and in that case it’s reflective of some of the moves that we’ve seen some of the other major cities around the country. Washington DC is another example where the Department of Transportation was pulled out of the Public Works Department specifically for the opportunity of the mayor to prioritize what he or she wanted to see done with the department. So, that may have been one of the things at play in Denver as well.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, we’ve got a lot of interesting things to watch. We’ve got, you know, a pretty big one coming up at some point in Michigan - it lost narrowly - for a Regional Transit Authority. Something they've been trying for for all of the counties in the Detroit metro area, really, you know, going back to the ’80s - in fact, Bill Rustam, who was a policy adviser to Governor Milliken back then, was a policy adviser again to Governor Rick Snyder in the early part of this decade, and he was still championing that idea that we need a Regional Transit Authority to have better transit service in and around Detroit, and I mean, you know, the history of Detroit as the Motor City, it was the last place that - after being early in the advent of streetcars, you know, the idea was everybody should have their own car, and so buses weren't a priority, but now they are with a lot of young people, with a lot of the growth in the urban center, and it's really a necessity for the job providers, and they get it, but getting a ballot issue to pass in multiple counties is difficult, and it barely lost in 2016, and they're going to be coming back at some point, so I think they’re going to be looking at some of these other cities, and what they did yesterday, and that could be promising for them, and maybe in other cities across the country. So anyway, thanks, Lloyd, for taking the time to talk about these things, I appreciate it, and appreciate your help with the podcast.

Lloyd Brown: Absolutely, well, thanks for inviting me Jeff.

Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more on Soundcloud, or by subscribing on Apple podcast.