Our view on the importance of language and the road to zero
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many road and traffic safety advocates and professionals raise the alarm about the number of lives lost due to road traffic injury. Prominent in these discussions has been the desire to not only change how we think about what happens on our roadway, but to refer to these life-altering situations by their proper name, crashes. Today, thanks to their tireless efforts and the leadership of the US Department of Transportation and other Departments of Transportation, I’m happy to say that INRIX is also making the shift.
As a company with a history of working on transportation and mobility, we know that this move alone does not fulfil our shared responsibility when it comes to the safety of our transportation systems. However, we do think the shift is valuable, and are encouraging others working in data, insights, and analytics to make the same shift and remove the word ‘accidents’ from our shared lexicon. Here’s why:
We need to shift how we think and talk about road safety if we’re to get to the only acceptable number, zero.
The data shows that motor vehicle traffic deaths are one of the leading contributors to unintentional injury deaths in the US, and that approximately 95 percent of our nation’s transportation deaths occur on our streets, roads, and highways. Numerically, this equates to 38,680 lives lost in 2020 on our nation’s roads – the equivalent passenger load of more than 90 Boeing 747s. However, and despite our best efforts to date and a good deal of progress, this trend appears to be on the rise. In fact, as a society we’ve arguably adjusted our expectations when it comes to safe road travel; otherwise, the above facts and stats would be wholly unacceptable.
For decades we’ve relied on the 4Es – engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency response – to improve the safety of all travelers. In recent years, we’ve added technology and innovation to the mix and have been exploring new ways to not only intervene before a crash occurs, but to better understand what happened to prevent its recurrence. Yet, in the U.S. the number of lives lost remains far too high, which warrants further action. This includes, but in no way is limited to shifting how we think and talk about road safety.
There are examples from around the globe that show taking this action can help save lives. Sweden—an early adopter of vision zero and the Safe Systems Approach—is often referenced as an example, but it is also worth mentioning the progress made in Norway and Canada. Between the years of 2010 and 2017, Norway cut the number of lives lost on their roadways by nearly 50 percent and Canada saw a decrease of nearly 30 percent. And according to published documents and data, this progress didn’t happen by chance.
A scan of the road safety materials from both nations point to two things: a national effort focused on shifting how people think about road safety and language that reflects not only the severity of the issue but also the importance of acting now. In Norway, the responsibility for road safety is shared by all road users and at all levels of government, including advocates and other stakeholders. Humans are not blamed for making errors in judgment and the road and traffic injuries are not alluded to as accidental occurrences that are inevitable. The same is true in Canada. A national road safety plan has been in place for years that explicitly states that the responsibility for road safety is shared amongst all road users. This shift in thinking and approach is core to the Safe System’s Approach and Vision Zero, because it sets the stage for comprehensive approaches to road and traffic safety.
Language matters, and making meaningful change requires that we acknowledge our shared responsibility.
Here is where the movement from accident to crash comes into play. The word accident is often associated with things that happen due to factors outside of one’s control and/or to situations where we don’t want to dwell, preferring quickly to move on. We’ve all read articles about road injury that allude to the vehicle’s independent agency or connect the incident to something that is a part of the process of travelling – be careful, because you may be involved in an accident.
Now think of how you feel and respond when you hear the word crash. This term evokes a different emotion, grabs your attention, and is absent a value-judgement. It is something that is harder to explain away and justify, and therefore more adequately reflects the gravity of what happened. It is a word that even for those not working in transportation, technology, or mobility resonates and causes one to want to know more about what happened and how to keep it from happening again.
Additionally, crash is a word that promotes shared responsibility and agency. It reminds us that the actions we take (or do not take) have repercussions, and that as travelers we should be concerned not only about our safety, but also about the safety of others who are also looking to simply get from point A to point B. Simply put, it is harder to ignore and allows us all to climb the learning curve and start thinking about road safety in a manner that can help us reach our goal of zero deaths. We know that simply changing language is not a solution—there are no simple one-off fixes when it comes to road safety—but words are powerful, and we need to leverage their impact if we’re to change course.
At INRIX, we believe that the private sector and all those working on issues related to transportation and mobility have an important role to play when it comes to this shift.
For more than a decade, our data has been used by our customers to develop plans, understand travel patterns, and help mitigate congestion. And while we haven’t always been perfect when it comes to language, we’re actively working to update our approach and remove the word accident from our vocabulary. To date, we’ve scrubbed our digital content and removed more than 300 references, and plan to keep looking until we find them all. As a company we know that this move alone will not get us to zero road deaths, but we do think that it helps change how we think about road safety – a key component for both developing and maintaining safer transportation systems. This effort aligns with what road safety advocates have been saying for years, and USDOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy. Again, as a company, our work to help make roads safer for all travelers is far from done, but we do think this is a step in the right direction.