Why Campaigns to Change Language Often Backfire

Opponents of the phrase “car accident” argue that language is intertwined with accountability.Photograph by Alan Poulson Photography / Shutterstock

In the first decades of the 20th century, people around the world began succumbing to an entirely new cause of mortality. These new deaths, due to the dangers of the automobile, soon became accepted as a lamentable but normal part of modern life. A hundred years later, with 1.25 million people worldwide (about 30,000 in the U.S.) being killed every year in road crashes, there’s now an effort to reject the perception that these deaths are normal or acceptable.

As in the , a growing number of safety advocates, government officials, and journalists are moving away from the phrase “car accident” on the grounds that it by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The vast majority of such incidents are caused by drivers who make mistakes, take risks, or drive while distracted or impaired. This linguistic shift is propelled by passionate advocates like Jeff Larason, who runs a  and Twitter account called Drop the “A” Word, and Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who explained at a conference on driver safety why his agency shuns that particular word: “When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like God made it happen.”

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