They’re not accidents, and we don’t have robotic cars

Updated October 5, 2011, to add a reference to a new article that fails to mention that the car involved in a crash had a driver. 


The headline for this crash might read: “Taxi wanted to avoid Lake Shore Drive congestion by taking the Lakefront Trail, makes wrong turn”. Photo by Andrew Ciscel. 

Language and word choice is powerful. It influences you to interpret a story in a specific way – or another. Monday’s headline on the Chicago Sun-Times website reads, “Police seek vehicle in fatal Uptown hit-and-run” and I thought, “Aren’t the police also interested in the driver of that vehicle?”*

And I read the first paragraph:

Police have released surveillance photos of a car that plowed into a woman crossing the street in Uptown early Saturday, then reportedly backed up and struck her again before fleeing the scene. The pedestrian died eight hours later.

“Oh, the police are looking for a car that drives itself. Of course!” I exclaimed to myself. “I guess one of Google’s experimental cars has come to Chicago”. But I was wrong as in the fifth paragraph, the unnamed author of this article described the crash:

The driver stopped, put the car into reverse and hit her again before fleeing southbound on Sheridan Road.

There was a driver! I’m done making jokes now. A 43 year-old woman was killed by this driver in Uptown at 4800 N Sheridan.

I appreciate that “accident” was not used anywhere in this article except to describe the section in the police department who is handling this investigation. This was a crash, pure and simple, but what is more complex is how the crash described. In multiple sentences does it seem like the car was driving itself.

…two witnesses saw the car traveling west on Lawrence Avenue at a high rate of speed plow into the pedestrian near Sheridan Road…


People are responsible the movement of their cars. It is people who have or don’t have the education to operate their automobiles with care. It is people who have the capability of becoming upset or stressed, causing “road rage”. A car cannot become drunk. And they must be held accountable. Drivers who cause others to die at the hands of their steering wheel are routinely unpunished.

In July 2011, I wrote on Steven Can Plan an article titled, “Carnage culture needs to change“, and listed several drivers that needed to get off the road. The worst offender, Ryan LeVin of Illinois, killed two British tourists in Florida but will not be going to jail.

The language writers use to frame road collisions can influence readers about who caused the crash, and further perpetuate a belief that 33,000 automobile-related fatalities each year in the United States are a kind of “cost of doing business”.

I reviewed other Chicago Sun-Times articles about crashes and found that, before the cause was known, the reporters labeled them “accidents” and “crashes” but followup articles that detailed the suspected causes lack any label. See this example from June 2011 when a Chicago Streets & Sanitation worker crashed into a group of pedestrians: initial report, followup report.

Passive voice

Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), writes on his blog, How We Drive, about two ways the first paragraph of a story in the New York Times about the death of a pregnant woman caused by a driver and his vehicle could have been written.

The story’s beginning:

A 28-year-old pregnant woman was killed and a second woman was seriously injured on Friday afternoon when a driver, apparently intoxicated and following the women as they walked down a Midtown Manhattan street, lost control of a supermarket maintenance van, which jumped onto the sidewalk and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

Tom’s proposal:

An apparently intoxicated driver killed a 28-year-old pregnant woman and seriously injured a second when he lost control of his van and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

And what’s the difference between the two?

In the first case, the question of agency is put down less to the driver than to the van, which mysteriously jumped the curb, leading to the method by which the woman “was killed.” The second point brings the point home more quickly, and I think leaves the reader feeling differently.

Did the van cause the crash, or did its driver? Your view may depend on which version of the story you read. Tom is upset at the use of passive voice in reporting. He has some explanations for why people may prefer it. Thank you Sustainable Savannah and Greater Greater Washington (calling this behavior “linguistic detachment”) for the tips.

We have a problem to fix

The 2010 hit-and-run rate for all automobile crashes in Chicago, including those with pedestrians and bicyclists, is 39.6%. With driving a 3,000 pound vehicle comes great responsibility. You should drive carefully.

An automobile crash is never an accident; there’s always a cause and it can be prevented.

Another example

The headline: “Car traveling wrong way on I-88 leaves 2 dead, shatters family

The first mention of the crash: “But that bond was shattered Saturday evening when a car traveling the wrong way on I-88 in Lisle collided with Ali’s vehicle.”

The problem: Cars don’t drive themselves in the wrong direction on highways.

The truth comes in paragraph 9: “The driver of a red Porsche convertible was traveling east in the westbound center lane of I-88 when the car collided with Ali’s Toyota Corolla…”

Second example

In an article published on CBS Chicago’s website on October 5, 2011, there was absolutely no mention that a human or other being was behind the steering wheel of a minivan that collided with a person riding a bicycle in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. “A cyclist was injured Wednesday morning when a minivan struck a bicycle in Buffalo Grove.”


*I presume that if the vehicle is found, the police will be able to identify its driver based on the car’s license plate and registration. 

9 thoughts on “They’re not accidents, and we don’t have robotic cars”

  1. I agree this issue of word choice is very important.  Using the word “accident” makes it sound like the collision was some sort of unavoidable event that fate had already planned out, when in the vast majority of cases, it was due to poor choices made by the human behind the steering wheel, like driving too fast, ignoring signage, electing risky maneuvers, using drugs, or multi-tasking instead of focusing on the road ahead.

    1. I want everyone to take it upon themselves to inspect the language they use, both in writing and in speaking. If you have to backtrack and correct yourself, do so, for you are advancing the interests of safe urban cycling. 

  2. As this terrifying Village Voice piece points out, finding the vehicle sometimes means nothing, since the driver can just report it stolen:
    (Also, it’s odd that the Voice headline-writer uses “accident”)

    1. The subheading is “If a car slams you off your bike, the cops won’t do anything”. Cars can’t be ticketed for crashes, only drivers. And only our police can issue tickets. Time for some reprioritization because the police aren’t issuing the tickets. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *