car crashA man fiddling with his car radio takes his eyes off the road, drifts over the centerline and hits another car head-on, seriously injuring the other driver.  At a trial on behalf of the injured victim, a juror speaks up during jury deliberations to persuade other jurors to reduce the dollar amount awarded to the injured person: “It was just an accident. He didn’t mean to hurt her.”

If you’ve been injured by a negligent driver, it is critical that you hire a personal injury attorney experienced in dealing with such perspectives should your case go to trial.

While people commonly use the terms “car accident,” “motorcycle accident,” and “truck accident,” there are very few true “accidents” on the road. By definition, an accident is “an event that happens by chance or is without apparent or deliberate cause.”  If you ever listen to a defense attorney at a jury trial, you’ll hear words like, “It was just an accident,” over and over. Defense attorneys use those words for a reason, because they stick in jurors’ minds.

If the negligent driver fiddling with his radio had actually deliberately crashed into the oncoming car, it would not have been an “accident.” It would have been a criminal act. The jury would not be deciding the value of the victim’s injury but would be charged with determining “guilt” or “innocence.”  On the other hand, driving around a curve and hitting a washout, or running into a boulder lying on the road as a result of a landslide, is something that happens by chance. It might be an example of an “unforeseeable accident.” As such, it might excuse or mitigate any negligence by the driver since it was, after all, an “accident” which the driver neither intended nor could have reasonably foreseen. However, if there had been signs warning of a washout or slide area ahead and the driver failed to take appropriate action, any resulting crash would not be an “unforeseeable accident.”

This third type of crash – one not undertaken with an intent to harm, but occurring due to a driver’s poor behaviors or bad decisions – is, by far, the most common type of incident on the road.

So, what’s wrong with calling a crash a “car accident” if it doesn’t happen deliberately or doesn’t result from a completely unforeseeable set of circumstances? The problem is that juries tend to subconsciously give a pass to – or go easier on – a driver when they characterize a crash as “just an accident.” Even understanding that a crash was caused by negligent driving in the form of distracted driving, driver inattention, or poor vehicle maintenance, the connotations of the word “accident” link to unconscious biases against holding negligent drivers fully accountable for their actions.

This is true even though the law requires negligent drivers to be found at fault. When jurors think of collisions as “accidents,” they’re more likely to downgrade negligent acts. Victims often are short-changed in legitimate claims because of the preconceived ideas people have about “accidents” versus “crashes.”

Crashes result from actions which people take, or fail to take, contrary to traffic laws, common sense and the laws of physics.  While “accidents” may be perceived as things that can’t be avoided, the causes of crashes are almost inevitably both predictable and preventable. This is why the federal agencies involved in traffic safety have banned the use of the word “accident” for more than 20 years:

“Changing the way we think about events and the words we use will affect the way we behave. … Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.”

– National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – 1997

As suddenly as they may seem to occur, car crashes are seldom events over which people have no control.  Using terms such as “crash,” “collision,” “plow into,” “smash into,” and the like reduces the semantics and unconscious biases associated with the word “accident.” These words focus attention on determining the causes of an event, rather than “intent,” which has nothing to do with negligence.

Knowing and articulating the causes of events helps decrease crash numbers and reduce risks when they do happen.

If you read our blog posts, however, you’ll see an apparent inconsistency on our part in that we often use the word “accident” even though we know it has implications that run contrary to our professional thinking and training. We do so deliberately because we recognize that “accident” is the word most commonly used in online searches when people are looking for help after being injured in a crash. We reluctantly use the word generically, as the public uses it, since our aim is to make our information available to those who need it and are using the most common search terms. Still, this topic is one we hope you’ll think about because it’s larger than a mere choice of words. Words do have meaning. Words have the power to change how we perceive events.

If you’ve been injured in a crash by a negligent driver, call our office today. Our law firm has recovered more than $125 million on behalf of victims and we are ready to assist you.

Besides Rochester, we serve the following major southeast Minnesota cities: Red Wing, Winona, Mankato, Austin, Albert Lea, and Owatonna, and all outlying communities, as well as the cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, and Bloomington. We also serve the Iowa cities of Mason City, Charles City, Osage, Spencer, Garner, Forest City, and Northwood and the Wisconsin cities of La Crosse, Onalaska, Sparta, Viroqua, River Falls, Ellsworth, Whitehall, and Black River Falls.