If you stop to think about the collisions that are constantly happening between road users of all kinds and that, even for the most horrible, they are all referred to as accidents – well, that’s kind of messed up.
If you limit the meaning of accident to simply not having intent, then yes, most unfortunate happenings are accidents. It is quite normal to react to causing something undesirable with an, “I didn’t mean to – it was an accident!”.
If you consider accidents as unfortunate happenings that are avoidable, which is well within the scope of the definition, then most “accidents”, or dare I say, almost all of them, are the result of negligence on the part of someone. In the context of traffic, when you exclude outside forces of nature like extreme wind gusts, falling trees, rock slides, and black ice, accidents are pretty much always the result of poor judgement. In other words, they are almost always avoidable. Calling these events accidents seems to let people off the hook and suggests that the forces of traffic are shrouded in a mystery that we can’t hope to figure out. It’s not an accident if it was avoidable.
Tom Vanderbilt, in his book, Traffic – Why We Drive The Way We Do, gets right to the core of the issue:
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 behaviours. 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 airbags (pedestrians, unfortunately, lack this safety feature).
Most crashes involve a violation of traffic laws, whether intentional or not. But even the notion of “unintentional” verses “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 another car… 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.” (Traffic, p.66)
As a species, we tend to try to get away with as much as we feel we reasonably can. We take shortcuts. We want to keep our momentum. We are lazy. Some more than others. For example, speed is one of the biggest factors in collisions, but you don’t need to be exceeding the speed limit to be going too fast. How many of you approach roundabouts or blind corners or crests with as much speed as legally possible? How many of you have reduced your speed when driving into the winter sun? If you are late, how many of you have tried multitasking behind the wheel, while doing any of the above? How many of you have passed a cyclist in-lane?
I have done (or not done, as the case may be) all of these things at some point, both in a car and on my bike. Judging by what I see every day on my ride to and from work and during the hours spent on my bike during the weekends, so have countless others, which I have to deal with each and every day.
It’s like trying to chop vegetables with a sharp knife faster and faster – eventually you are going to get cut. You might even lose a finger, but at the end of the day, you have yourself to blame. You didn’t intend to do it, but you did it, nonetheless, and it could have been avoided because you had the choice to be more attentive to your actions. The difference with traffic is that the knife needlessly goes into someone else’s hand, and most of the time, all you have to say is, “oops, it was an accident”.
We have a culture of shifting blame to anything we can, and this is getting people killed. When we are calmed by the words, “no drugs or alcohol were involved”, this should be highlighting something for us that is far more gruesome than if drugs or alcohol were involved – sober negligence.
Past the point where a person consumes drugs or has one drink too many (funny how nobody talks about alcohol as a drug…), their judgment, amongst other things, is impaired, and by that logic, they should actually be considered less responsible for their actions than someone who has full use of their decision-making processes and reaction times. If you stop and think about it, a person who causes an accident through inattentiveness, reckless behaviour, or voluntary distraction of any kind, should be punished more severely (or at least as severely) than those who were simply drunk.
I know that might sound a bit crazy to some, but don’t read that as letting drunk people off the hook. Rather than reducing sentences for impaired driving, I would suggest that we need to make the consequences for sober “accidents” more severe – especially those that that cause substantial damage and/or cost lives. Where inattentiveness, reckless behaviour, excessive speed, voluntary distraction, or any other factor that is within the power of the driver to consider, can be shown to be a factor, the person at fault should not be able to walk away without consequence.
It’s not an accident if it was avoidable, and if it’s not an accident, then it should be criminal (for more severe cases). I think that it’s a sad state of affairs that people can’t take it upon themselves to think about their actions and their consequences, but I fear that otherwise we will never take seriously the thousands of avoidable deaths and severe injuries every week.
What was the reason that you didn’t you do something naughty when you were a little kid? Because you feared getting in trouble. In this respect we still haven’t grown up, only now our guardians aren’t concerned with what we get up to.
There are genuine accidents, there are some that are a bit iffy, and there are others that show a clear cause. We need to at the very least start with prosecuting the cases that contain driver negligence, drunk or sober. The sooner we stop excusing our negligence as “accidental”, the safer our roads will be.
Header image: source