The use of the word “accident” in referring to road crashes is so pervasive in the Philippines, we hardly give it a thought. When a crash happens, we shrug and say “naaksidente.” When the Tanay bus crash happened, mainstream media reported it as an “accident.” The Philippine National Police, Metro Manila Development Authority and Philippine Statistics Authority record road fatalities as traffic “accident” deaths. In September, our legislators expressed alarm over the rising number of vehicular “accidents” calling for an investigation into them.
But are the hundreds of thousands of road crashes occurring on Philippine roads every year really accidents?
An old, speeding bus careens down a mountain highway. The driver loses control, hits a post, killing his passengers.
A drunk motorcycle rider on his way home from a party, crashes into a left-turning taxi that signalled 10 meters before reaching the intersection.
A jeepney plowed into a traffic enforcer, having u-turned wide from the third lane, to overtake other u-turning vehicles.
A passenger van kills a child crossing a six-lane highway on the way to school.
A passenger car crashes into the car in front of it, because the driver was texting while driving.
A motorcycle drives into an electric post in the middle of the road.
These kinds of collisions that happen daily on Philippine roads are not really accidents, in the ordinary or legal sense.
Merriam-Webster defines an accident as an “unforeseen or unplanned event or circumstance, lacking in intention or necessity.”
Black’s Law dictionary defines accident as “an unforeseeable and unexpected turn of events” that is neither deliberate nor inevitable.
In Philippine jurisprudence, an accident is understood as “an unforeseen event in which no fault or negligence attaches to the defendant.” It is distinguished from “negligence” which is defined as the failure to observe that degree of care that the circumstances demand for the protection of others, and which results in another suffering an injury. In the case of Jarco Marketing Corporation vs. Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court referred to accident and negligence as “intrinsically contradictory,” because an accident occurs even when a person is exercising ordinary care, whereas negligence is the absence of such care.
Given these definitions, it is evident, that majority of road crashes occurring on our roads are not accidents, but are either deliberate acts or negligent acts. For instance, in the case of the jeepney that plowed into the traffic enforcer, there was a deliberate decision on the part of the driver to overtake and turn wide notwithstanding its dangers. The drunk motorcycle rider was likewise deliberately negligent in deciding to drive under the influence of alcohol.
Evidence from studies also show that majority of road crashes are actually foreseeable or expected, and therefore, preventable by adopting tried and tested interventions. For instance, studies show unexpected road hazards cause road crashes. Therefore, road crashes can be avoided by constructing self-explaining roads with no unexpected hazards. Studies also show that wide roads are dangerous to pedestrians because vehicles tend to speed, and a crash at the speed of 60 kph will kill pedestrians 90% of the time. Therefore, pedestrian fatalities can be avoided by strict enforcement of speed limits on wide roads where pedestrians cross.
When a bus careens down a mountain highway, it is not misfortune that causes it to crash into a post to avoid falling into a ravine, killing its passengers. Fatal crashes often happen when a heavy vehicle drives downhill, on curved roads, where it is easy to lose control of the vehicle.
Because road crashes are largely preventable, and are not matters of chance as the word accident implies, there is now a growing movement calling for an end to the liberal use of the A-word. The National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States, in 1997, drew attention to the impact of the use of “accident”. For Pamela Anikeeff, a senior behavioral scientist in NHTSA, the words we use to describe events affect the way we behave:
“…Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word ‘accident’ promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions. Since we can identify the causes of crashes, we can take action to alter the effect and avoid collisions….”
More recently, Families for Safe Street, a New York based organization, and Vision Zero Network, a collaboration of road safety advocates in the United States, started the Crash Not Accident campaign, calling on people to pledge to stop calling traffic crashes “accidents,” and to educate others about why crash is a better word. In the Journal of Traumatic Stress, Alan E. Stewart and Janice Harris Lord, psychologist and sociologist, respectively, advocate for the replacement of the phrase “motor vehicle accident” with “motor vehicle crash” in the clinical and research lexicon of traumatologists, because “crash” is more encompassing.
Indeed, crash is the better word. “Crash” does not assume that the event is unforeseeable, unexpected or inevitable. It does not presuppose that the actor was not legally negligent.
See, when we use the word “accident” liberally, we deny its meaning.
The word “accident” exculpates. It denies the liability of the actor, or the government that persistently fails to address the problem. The use of the word accident perpetuates the sense of helplessness, the notion that road crashes cannot be avoided. It suggests that road crashes will keep occuring however much we try to prevent them. It is a refusal to acknowledge our power to collectively act and take control of the problem.
Words matter. Call it a crash, not an accident.