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Car Accident Term Debate

Is it a car accident, crash, wreck, or collision? Whether you’re watching the news, listening to the local radio, or getting an alert from your smartphone, one of those terms describing a traffic incident is commonly used. But when is a traffic collision considered an “accident,” and when is it a determined to be a “crash”?  

That question continues to be debated, but an increasing number of safety advocates around the United States are uniting around one position: not calling traffic incidents “accidents.”  

Using the word “accident” suggests that the collision could not have been foreseen and that no one is to blame for a victim’s death or injury — a reason that is empowering many to change the way people talk and think about crashes. In this article, we’ll discuss the definitions of “accident,” why this verbiage has become controversial when describing traffic collisions, and what you should do if you have questions about a car crash or have been injured in one. 

What Is an Accident? 

While several definitions of “accident” appear in the dictionary, let’s focus on these two similar definitions found in Merriam-Webster: 

  1. An unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance  
  2. An unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance  

Why Is Using “Accident” Controversial? 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly all car crashes result from driver behavior, such as drinking, distracted driving, and other risky activity. Given this fact, calling the majority of roadway incidents “accidents” has become controversial because it implies one of two things: 

  1. No one is taking responsibility for the traffic incident, and the car crash was not caused by a driver’s mistake or negligence but was simply an unfortunate event.  
  2. The at-fault driver did not mean to harm anyone or cause the incident, so it was just an accident. 

Because the word “accident” suggests that no one is at fault, many safety advocates are troubled by calling crashes that are caused by something like distracted driving an “accident.” For example, drivers know better than to use their cell phone while they are behind the wheel, but many people still make the careless decision to do it — which leads to nearly 3,500 deaths and nearly 400,000 injuries every year. And those numbers are rising. 

RELATED: 8 Things You Should Never Do After An Auto Accident

Saying these are just “accidents” takes the blame off of the people who cause crashes by choosing to drive distracted. A similar attitude may be why efforts to increase traffic safety and decrease injuries and fatalities on the road are ineffective. 

And while most people don’t intend to cause a wreck or hurt others on the road, their careless decision making may still be the only reason a crash happens. A drunk driver may not get in a car meaning to hit a pedestrian, but if they had gotten a ride home with a sober friend, they could have avoided injuring another person entirely. Similarly, aggressive driving, following too closely, making lane changes without looking, and speeding are all decisions that people make to behave in an unsafe manner. We shouldn’t allow people to avoid responsibility for these harmful decisions by calling the resulting crash an “accident.” 

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The Case for “Accident” 

Still, some safety advocates prefer using the term “accident,” including the North Carolina Department of Insurance, which uses the word more than 50 times in their auto insurance consumer guide. A few of the arguments for continuing to describe a collision as a traffic “accident” include: 

  1. Most traffic violations — from running over a curb to fatal collisions — are unintentional. Therefore, most traffic incidents can be technically defined as an accident.
  2. All collisions routinely undergo a thorough investigation to determine the cause and what or who is at fault.
  3. Legislative bodies and law enforcement agencies take action to solve problems that lead to traffic incidents — such as passing drunk driving laws and suspending licenses of irresponsible drivers. As a result, they do place fault on guilty drivers and bring awareness to the consequences of negligent driving. 

The Transition to “Crash”  

Despite these arguments, approximately 30 state departments of transportation have now veered away from using the term “accident.” In addition, the Associated Press announced a new policy last year that instructs their reporters to avoid using the term “accident” when negligence is claimed or proven in a car crash. 

The term “crash” is preferred to replace “accident” because it restores responsibility to the at-fault driver and promotes widespread understanding of the implications of fault in vehicle collisions. 

Myers Law Firm: Advocating for Car Crash Victims in North Carolina 

If you or someone you love has been injured in a car crash, collision, or wreck, you may be entitled to compensation, and the attorneys at Myers Law Firm are here to help. Every day, we work with people who have been injured due to someone else’s negligence.  

Even though they don’t intend to cause a crash, when another person drives drunk, uses their cell phone, or acts carelessly in another way, their behavior can injure innocent victims. And no one deserves to pay out of their own pocket when someone else causes their misfortune. North Carolina has a three-year statute of limitations to file personal injury claims (two years for wrongful death), making it essential to follow up on any car crash injury and talk to an attorney right away.  

Please complete our convenient online contact form or call our offices at 888-376-2889. We’ll schedule a free consultation with an attorney who can listen to the details of your story and help you decide what your best option is moving forward. 


Distracted driving. (n.d.). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving  

Reeves, J. (2017, March 13). When vehicles collide – What is it called? CBS North Carolina. Retrieved from http://wncn.com/2017/03/13/when-vehicles-collide-what-is-it-called/  

Richtel, M. (2016, May 22). It’s no accident: Advocates want to speak of car “crashes” instead. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/23/science/its-no-accident-advocates-want-to-speak-of-car-crashes-instead.html  

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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