A few months ago, I drove south on US 19 in Spring Hill, Fla. on my way to work. At the intersection at the county line, flashing lights from squad cars and fire trucks forced all southbound drivers to merge to the right. The traffic light turned red, so I had a minute to look for whatever it was on the left that required the presence of the emergency responders.
First, I saw the motorcycle. Then, I saw the body.
Upon my arrival at work, where my colleagues pursued the story, I learned a young woman in a red truck had run the light, killing the motorcyclist as he crossed the intersection. She did it after escaping arrest for driving while intoxicated and dragging a deputy (who’d jumped on to her truck to try to stop her) across 19’s northbound lanes as she sped away. The deputy survived. A mile or so north of the motorcycle crash scene, deputies caught the driver. She has been in jail ever since.
In a recorded jailhouse call between the driver and the father of her baby, she says some of the following, through tears:
“As far as the deputy, she jumped on the truck. It’s not like I hit her. She fell off. It was her decision to jump on the truck … what was I supposed to do?”
“I didn’t run (the motorcylist) over on purpose.”
“It was a car accident.”
Really? An accident?
Earlier this year, I interviewed Tom Vanderbilt — the brilliant author of the brilliant book Traffic — and in the essay about driving in which I quoted him, we came to the following conclusions:
Calling a crash an accident “implies there’s no way this could have been prevented, that it was unforeseeable,” Vanderbilt said. Phrases like “drunken-driving accident” are most egregious, he said.
The word “accident” enables negligent drivers. It lets a person create conditions in which vehicles are likely to collide and call it unpredictable after it happens.
The belief that it’s all right to call all car collisions “accidents” is not limited to the jailed driver from the crash scene I saw in May. Read a newspaper. Eavesdrop while you people watch. It comes up a lot. I am of the opinion that it has to stop.
When we call a crash an accident, we permit the person responsible for it to relinquish responsibility. We admit what happened is bad, but minimize the incident because — after all — the driver didn’t mean to.
What we don’t consider when we call crashes accidents is that premeditation is not a prerequisite for responsibility. You don’t have to plan out something for it to be your fault. But if we call crashes “accidents,” we perpetuate that belief, which lets a lot of bad decision makers off the hook. It becomes easy to live like “I didn’t mean to!” means “I’m not responsible!”
But when we call a crash what it is — a crash or a collision — it’s something worth dissecting. It’s something that, when dissected, is actually pretty predictable.
I am 100% certain the driver who ran the light that morning at County Line Road did not get in her truck that day with intentions to use it to kill someone. But she decided to use drugs. She decided to get in the car. She decided to escape police custody — after she was already in handcuffs — and flee in her truck. She decided to drive more than 70 miles per hour with a deputy hanging off her vehicle. She decided to blow a red light.
You can say the same about somebody who decides to text and drive. Somebody who decides to speed in the rain. To weave in and out of traffic. To dig through the console. To drive while you’re really, really tired.
When something happens while we do those things, it’s not an accident. It’s negligence.
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Click here to listen to listen to the driver’s jailhouse call and to read the story.