Accidents happen. Or do they?
This week I was engaged in an interesting Twitter discussion about whether or not the media should ever refer to car crashes as “accidents.”
It came up after my story about an 11-year-old boy who was struck by a vehicle as he crossed a busy St. Paul street on his way to school. Police said one vehicle had slowed down for the boy when the driver in a following vehicle went around, apparently not knowing that the other vehicle was stopping for the boy, and struck him.
The child had to undergo brain surgery and is still in the hospital.
I referred to the incident as an “accident,” along with several other reporters and the police. But not everyone on Twitter agreed with us.
Matt Steele of Minneapolis tweeted: “When people hear accident, they hear ‘no way this could have been prevented.’ Accident is loaded and not factual.”
The latest Associated Press stylebook, the journalist’s go-to guide for word usage, doesn’t have entries on either “crash” or “accident.” But stylebook gurus have discussed the issue online.
When asked last year about it, an AP editor advised avoiding “terms that might suggest a conclusion.” In another discussion, when asked which word to use, an editor said, “Generally follow the description provided by authorities in their incident report.”
When I search St. Paul police reports, crashes are referred to as “traffic accidents.” In Minneapolis, the terms are used interchangeably, said police spokesman John Elder.
However, the state Department of Public Safety has made a more deliberate push to refrain from using “accident” and instead refer to incidents as “crashes,” similar to other traffic safety organizations, spokesman Bruce Gordon said.
“Accident implies that what occurs is random and there is no way anyone could have prevented it,” Gordon said. He added that there are choices we can make when we are behind the wheel — such as driving the speed limit and avoiding distractions like texting — which can help prevent tragedy.
The Star Tribune is considering amending the paper’s style.