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January 06, 2014

NewSpeak Reversed at Post-Gazette: Crash, Collision replace "Accident" in Vehicle Reporting

It appears that improvements have been implemented at the Post-Gazette in terms of reporting vehicle collisions, events, injuries, and fatalities - and we are very grateful for it.

In the past, the Post-Gazette (as many papers have done for decades) has described people being killed by cars as "accidents". Pedestrians, cyclists, runners, passengers, drivers: they have been written up as victims of accidents.

The problem is that calling them an "accident" frames the discussion in a way that positions the event as causeless, blameless, inevitable, and unaddressable - when the initial reports offer no evidence that any of these are true.

A meteor that falls out of the sky and kills a jogger is an accident. A crane that falls off the Space Station and kills a jogger is not an accident.

When a driver hits a person with their car, it's rarely murder or assault; it might be manslaughter. There may be factors that should be identified and studied: intersection design and construction, misleading signs and markings, speed, impairment, enforcement, training, licensing, distractions, texting. When we call the event an "accident", we eschew the mindset of inquiry.

The reason that aviation is so safe is that long ago, aviation abandoned the "shit happens" perspective. Aviation identified, reported, collected, and analyzed root causes and then made data-driven recommendations to improve safety and save lives. Nobody really worries about flying anymore.

Quick question: how many people do you know that have been killed/injured in a car? In a plane? Do you ever tell somebody flying, be careful?

35000 Americans die from cars every year. Somehow that seems acceptable to a lot of people, just like for a long time dying from smoking seemed acceptable to a lot of people.

A movement to analyze and prevent DeathByCar called #VisionZero is underway. Last year, again, Portland Oregon saw no car-cyclist fatalities - because they have worked for years to reach that goal.

Pittsburgh sees many car injuries, fatalities, and collisions. In order to address them, we need to (sorry to repeat) identify, report, collect, and analyze root causes. In order for that to happen, we need to change the language-of-discussion and stop calling them "accidents".

In the last weeks of 2013, we saw the same ambiguous headlines that you'll see in other newspapers. "Man killed while walking on Route 65" Was he struck by a meteor? Is walking inherently dangerous? "Police seek help in hit-and-run accident" How is hit-and-run an accident? It's a crime.

They are not "accidents". They are collisions or crashes. People are not killed by a car accident. People are killed/injured by drivers of cars, in collisions or crashes.

In the first week of 2014, we see much improved writing styles. The word "accident" has not appeared. We see "crash" and "collision". We see "driver", identifying the agent. Well done, Post-Gazette writers and editors. Thank you very much.

Thankfully this is Orwell's NewSpeak in reverse, and the Post-Gazette has done us a great service by improving the language and specificity of their vehicle event reporting: by using specific, concise words, we can identify and report the events and begin to save lives.

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