Stop Calling My Daughter’s Death a Car Accident
In October of 2013, an SUV driver making a left turn ran over and killed my three-year-old daughter. Allison, walking hand-in-hand with her grandmother in Flushing, Queens, had the right of way, dashcam video showed.
Police did not charge the driver with a misdemeanor or felony, but gave him tickets for failure to yield and failure to use due care. Those were thrown out by a state department of motor vehicles judge, who ignored the video evidence and took just 47 seconds to rule that the driver was “not guilty.”
My story is one of many.
Imagine being hit by a vehicle so hard that you’re knocked unconscious for several minutes, and the driver flees the scene. Bystanders find the side-view mirror, and trace it back to the car. But the police won’t even question the car’s owner, saying they consider the whole thing an “accident.”
Or imagine your child is run over and killed by a city bus driver who had recently been suspended for texting at the wheel; the day he hit your child was his first day back at work. Once again, authorities classify the collision as an “accident.”
These are just two stories members of our group, Families for Safe Streets, told at a recent vigil to remember people killed and injured in New York City traffic. At that event, the organization of New Yorkers who have been injured or lost a loved one in a collision launched a campaign to change the way people talk about collisions. We call it #CrashNotAccident.
Our joint campaign with the street safety advocates at Transportation Alternatives is about language, but it isn’t an academic exercise in scolding people about word choice. Our objective is actually to challenge the assumptions behind those words—assumptions that lead to policy decisions that allow the carnage on our streets to continue, with no driver accountability.
How could a DMV judge throw out the tickets for the SUV driver who killed my daughter? I believe that the use of the word “accident”—by DMV officials, the media, and general public—is a big part of the problem. When we say “accident,” we are basically throwing up our hands and saying that the deaths of children like Allison are inevitable, something no one is responsible for, like bad weather.
We know that the crash that ended our daughter’s life was preventable, as are so many collisions. That’s one reason we say #CrashNotAccident. Another reason is that “accident” is not neutral. It implies a lack of guilt. Yet reporters often use the word in news stories before crash investigations are complete, just as they did in Allison’s case.
At the hospital, as the doctors worked unsuccessfully to resuscitate our daughter, police officers told me the driver had a blind spot. They made other excuses on his behalf, even though the investigation was not yet complete. They never mentioned that our daughter had the right of way, and the driver had alcohol in his system (though he was under the legal limit). It felt to me like the NYPD was on the side of the driver, and was shrugging off our daughter’s death as just another misfortune.
“It was just an accident.” That’s what drunk drivers used to say after killing or injuring someone in a crash, before MADD led its successful campaigns to stigmatize and criminalize DWI. As a result of their efforts, today we expect people to be held accountable when they’re caught drinking and driving. When a plane crashes, we don’t call it an “accident.” We expect a thorough investigation to determine how similar disasters can be prevented in the future.
But when a sober driver kills or maims someone, we as a society remain hesitant to hold that driver accountable. As a result, the #CrashNotAccident campaign is getting some pushback.
Yes, accidents happen. A car can slide on black ice or get hit by a falling tree limb and spin out of control. But the things I see every day—drivers turning into crosswalks full of pedestrians, two or three drivers in a row running a single red light—and the headlines I read every few days about cars “jumping the curb” (which actually means driving onto the sidewalk)—are different. These things are easily preventable. The crashes they cause are not “accidents”; they are the results of negligence and dangerous behavior.
Here in New York City, the debate about crash vs. accident has been at the center of a controversy over the new Right of Way Law, which my wife and I pushed for following Allison’s death. Enacted in June of 2014, it allows police to bring a misdemeanor charge if a driver kills or seriously injures someone who has the right of way in a crosswalk or a bike lane.
The Transport Workers Union has fought to exempt the city’s bus drivers from the law, which they claim unjustly “criminalizes accidents.”
In fact, the law merely creates some accountability for a preventable and negligent act. While the TWU has been fighting the law, there are signs that it is already having a positive effect on bus drivers’ behavior: so far there have been zero fatalities where city bus drivers failed to yield the right of way to pedestrians in crosswalks. Last year, MTA bus drivers making turns killed eight pedestrians who were in crosswalks with the right of way.
Our struggle with The Transport Workers Union is just a small example of a larger problem: the World Health Organization says that globally 1.24 million deaths are caused by traffic crashes, which are expected to be the fifth leading cause of death by 2030 if we continue the current path, where nobody is held accountable.
My city has adopted a Vision Zero policy, aiming to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by fixing dangerous streets and changing driving behavior. But we’re also going to have to change the way we think about traffic crashes if we’re going to reach that goal. As the old campaign says: safety is no accident. Let’s stop using that word today.