A few years ago, the New York Times published a five-sentence brief about a man who “intentionally ran over five people” with an SUV after a fight in North Bellmore, Long Island. The driver, the Times reported, “fled the scene of the accident.” The police later located the vehicle that “they believed was involved in the accident.” One of the victims was in critical condition.
Ho hum. News briefs about the previous day’s car crashes are as routine as box scores and the weather forecast. Yet, in this case, the Times’ (and, presumably, the Nassau County cops’) choice of one particular word stood out: If a man intentionally ran over five people, how could that possibly be considered an accident? If, instead of car keys, the man had picked up a gun and shot five people, would the press and police have called that an “accident” too? No. They’d have called it “attempted homicide.” Yet, for some reason when the weapon is a car, when the violence on our streets is done with a motor vehicle, it’s always just an “accident.”
Words are powerful. They shape the way we see the world around us. As a recent study by Stanford University cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shows, small changes in language can have a profound impact on how we conceptualize and act on public policy issues. Boroditsky presented two separate groups with nearly identical paragraphs about rising crime rates in a fictional city. For one group, the story started: “Crime is a beast ravaging the city of Addison.” The other group’s story began: “Crime is a virus ravaging the city of Addison.” For both groups the story continued with an identical set of alarming statistics. After they read the paragraph, Boroditsky asked her subjects what the police should do about Addison’s crime wave.
Participants who read the “beast” story overwhelmingly called for more police enforcement. They wanted criminals to be captured and punished. Participants who read the “virus” story leaned toward social reform. They tended to want police to investigate the root causes of the crime to stop its spread. Changing just a single word, Boroditsky found, “can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make ‘well-informed’ decisions.” When the study’s 485 participants were asked to highlight what they thought was the most influential part of the text, almost everyone insisted that they had been persuaded by the statistics. The influence of the beast and virus metaphors, Boroditsky concluded, is “covert.” People often don’t recognize when they are being swayed by a specific choice of words.
So, is it any surprise that the NYPD’s “Accident” Investigation Squad so frequently declares “no criminality suspected” after a motor vehicle is used to kill a pedestrian or cyclist on New York City streets? After all, they don’t call themselves the Motor Vehicle Manslaughter Squad. They don’t think of themselves as homicide detectives, or cars as weapons, or drivers as killers. The word “accident” implies no fault. It’s what we call it when a toddler makes a small mess. “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” we say. The assumption is built into the name of the NYPD bureaucracy itself: Death by motor vehicle is an “accident” before the investigators even get to what may very well be the scene of a crime. The Accident Investigation Squad is there to clean up and keep the traffic moving.
Though it may sometimes seem otherwise, New York City drivers don’t wake up in the morning intending to harm pedestrians and cyclists. Most crashes are unintentional and “accident” is not an inaccurate word to describe them. But the fact remains: Driver negligence is the number one cause of crashes, and it’s no big surprise—or accident—when negligent driving hurts and kills people on crowded city streets. In fact, our legal system has a word for this type of unintentional killing: “Manslaughter.” Lots of work needs to be done and lots of things need to change to fix the way the NYPD deals with pedestrians and cyclists who have been injured and killed by negligent drivers. But if it’s true that small changes in language can have a big impact on public policy, then the easiest change is simply this: Stop calling car crashes “accidents.”
Aaron Naparstek is on temporary loan to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Visiting Scholar at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Streetsblog.org.