When it comes to language, innocent mistakes can lead to embarrassing moments, poor impressions, and misunderstandings. We've all been there. While these experiences can be quite mortifying to look back on, they often lead to a newfound appreciation of the power of language.
Portland Bureau of Transportation's Vision Zero team knows just how much words matter because what we're trying to communicate is of the utmost importance. Portland’s goal is to eliminate both traffic deaths and serious injuries – but we haven’t reached it yet. In 2022, 63 people died in traffic crashes in Portland, which matches 2021’s three-decade high – a trend that is consistent across the country. The people who died are children, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. Their lives were cut short. Their loss has left gaping holes in the hearts of those who loved them and knew them. And their deaths were no accident. But too often our vernacular has us using that exact word.
When we use the word “accident” rather than “crash,” we’re implying that a collision was somehow inevitable. We’re not only absolving the person driving from responsibility but also the local transportation agency. But that doesn't align with PBOT's goal of making Portland streets safe for everyone. PBOT has strategic commitments to realize Vision Zero, including protecting pedestrians, reducing speeds citywide, designing streets to protect human lives, and creating a culture of shared responsibility. Part of the latter strategy is reminding ourselves and our communities that crashes are preventable and predictable. Portland’s high-crash network makes up 8% of streets but accounts for more than half of traffic deaths. Further, these streets are disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. As parents, caregivers, and community members, it’s imperative that we use language that is accurate because, as cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky says, “we can drastically change someone’s perspective by how we choose to talk about and frame something.”
We’re inviting our community to change the way we talk about crashes, and in doing so, change the broad cultural perception that crashes are inevitable. A Vision Zero approach refuses to accept traffic violence as a byproduct of “just the way things are.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration committed to no longer using the word “accident” way back in the 90s. Many other state and local agencies have made the pledge as well. Author and journalist Jessie Singer wrote a 352-page book last year titled There Are No Accidents detailing “what we call accidents are hardly random.” The AP Stylebook even weighed in and made a proclamation to avoid accident “when negligence is claimed or proven.” So, will you join us?