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Car Accident vs. Traffic Violence: What’s the Difference?

January 16, 2020 | Filed under: Los Angeles Car Accidents Aerial view of Los Angeles Presented By Uber Lyft Accident Lawyer Los Angeles

In the City of Los Angeles, traffic fatalities continue to rise… and a startling percentage of them involve pedestrians and cyclists getting struck by cars. These sobering trends have caused many safety advocates to propose some changes to the way we talk about highway collisions. Learn more about these efforts, and about other public safety trends in the LA area.

Car Accident vs. Traffic Violence: What’s the Difference?

When a car or truck collides with something, we tend to call it an “accident,” or at least, that’s historically been the case.

And certainly, in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, car accidents remain quite common. The traffic fatalities in 2019 were largely unchanged over previous years, and if anything might have exhibited a slight increase. About 239 people died in traffic accidents in the City of Los Angeles last year, and roughly half of those people were pedestrians.

Meanwhile, 19 cyclists were struck and killed by cars, and the number of pedestrians who were struck and injured (but didn’t die) rose a little bit over 2018’s numbers.

But as traffic injuries and fatalities continue apace, many experts are encouraging a linguistic shift. It’s not quite right to refer to these as “car accidents,” some are now saying. Such language has implicit biases about who causes and who is victimized by these collisions; by who is and who isn’t to blame.

Instead, experts say that “traffic violence” is a more useful way of describing instances of cars colliding with things, particularly pedestrians and cyclists.

The basic argument is that, when we refer to these cases like accidents, we not only underplay their seriousness but also suggest that there was nothing that could have been done to stop the carnage.

As such, experts say traffic violence is a more suitable term, and that changing the way we talk about collisions may also shift our understanding of how these events happen and how they might be prevented.

How the Language of Auto Collisions is Evolving

These attempts to change our shared vocabulary will face some challenges, not least the reality that the car accident language is deeply entrenched. It’s used often, even by police officers and public safety officials. Sometimes, it is even used to describe the behavior of drunk drivers!

Experts are saying that much of the onus for this linguistic change will go to news media outlets, who are being urged toward more thoughtfulness and nuance in the way highway collisions are reported and characterized.

It’s worth noting that, in Los Angeles, a majority of the accidents that either kill or seriously injure pedestrians happen on only six percent of city streets (the “High Injury Network,” many locals call it). More than 70 percent of serious pedestrian/car collisions happen in this area.

This is an important context that often goes unreported. Instead, collisions are presented as isolated incidents, random and unavoidable.

Calling these collisions accidents absolves not only the drivers who are involved, but also the designers, engineers, and public safety officials who are responsible for creating safe streets.

Meanwhile, many major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles among them, take the official stance that better traffic laws and reduced speeds can save lives, a notion that’s somewhat at odds with the implication that car “accidents” are unavoidable. But despite these discrepancies, the “accidents” terminology remains rampant, both in media coverage and in everyday speech.

The Problem with Windshield Journalism

Speaking of questionable press coverage, there is also a concept called “windshield journalism,” which basically means that the way auto collisions are reported is framed by how it impacts other motorists. For example, major accidents in Los Angeles are often deemed “major headaches,” sources of hassle and inconvenience, for other drivers.

The reality is that the language of car collisions has been intentionally shaped over the years to be less favorable toward pedestrians, and to shield drivers and automakers. Just think of the term jaywalking, designed to shame people who walk on busy streets.

Back in the early days of the automobile, drivers were often framed as callous murderers or reckless destroyers of human life. It was only through intense lobbying by the auto manufacturing industry that the language of “car accidents” emerged, significantly softening the image and reputation of drivers.

Meanwhile, the auto industry pushed for press coverage that framed auto wrecks as inevitable; the unavoidable consequence of “progress.”

What New Research Shows

New research from Texas A&M University makes it pretty clear, however, that the language we use to talk about highway collisions matters.

Indeed, through one experiment, researchers found that the language people use to describe highway incidents can cause them to disproportionately blame either the driver or the pedestrian; there’s a swing of some 60 percent between the two extremes, and it all comes down to the words used to characterize the event.

Research also shows that the way the news media frames collisions has a big impact on how passionately people feel about public safety initiatives, such as redesigning roadways.

The study offers some useful recommendations for those who report car accidents for a living, such as refraining from using language that suggests the pedestrians who are struck by cars could or should do something different in order to survive.

How to Read About Traffic Fatalities

One way you can make a difference, and help change the conversation around auto collisions, is to be more mindful in how you read about traffic fatalities.

Look for things like context, framing, and the assignment of blame.

If you see that accidents are tied to pedestrians or cyclists, or that these individuals are portrayed as being complicit in their own fatalities, check to see if there are any actual facts to back up these assertions.

For example, a recent news story from Los Angeles claimed that 91 percent of pedestrian accidents were actually caused by the pedestrians… a big claim, and one that the article never backed up with any facts.

Also, be attentive to any “victim-blaming” language that is implicit in so much media coverage of traffic fatalities.

The Rise of “Traffic Violence”

As awareness of these issues rises, the characterization of highway collisions as innately violent acts continues to rise.

And it’s not just among safety advocates that this language is becoming popular. Even Senator and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has applied the “traffic violence” terminology in her discussion of these issues.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has also adopted some of this language and embraced some initiatives to curb traffic violence right here in LA.

Of course, the term “traffic violence” has been met with some criticism in some corners, and these criticisms are not off-base. To refer to auto collisions as acts of violence may strike some as a judgment of intention when most drivers are obviously not intentionally trying to hurt anyone or enact violence on the streets.

Yet perhaps the language is useful in reminding us all of how dangerous it really is to drive a car… and how high the stakes. Consider that a pedestrian who is hit by a car going 20 mph has an 80 percent chance of survival. But if the car accelerates even to 40 mph (still well below most posted speed limits), the pedestrian’s chances dwindle to just 10 percent. So in a sense, there is something to be said for driver intentions, specifically the intention to either follow speed limits and obey traffic laws or to ignore them.

Changing Language Isn’t Enough

Some updates to our auto collision terminology may be most welcome, but they are unlikely to be sufficient for truly saving lives.

Even over the last four years, the rate of accidents in Los Angeles has skyrocketed. 975 people died in accidents between the start of 2016 and the end of 2019. More than half of those people were pedestrians struck by cars, and about 80 more were cyclists killed on LA’s city streets.

So what can be done to improve safety? Traffic enforcement is one big priority. But there also needs to be some unified political will to make major changes to LA’s streets and its traffic regulations, particularly in some of those areas where accidents are especially common.

Thankfully, many Los Angeles residents have started to notice the lack of progress the city is making in reducing traffic fatalities. Increased public pressure may finally result in meaningful change. And the linguistic evolution is a part of that.

Still, there’s a long way to go. Just consider some of these accident stats from Los Angeles, spanning January 1 through December 21, 2019 (data from the last few days of the year is unavailable).

Pedestrian fatalities:

  • Central Los Angeles: 30
  • South Los Angeles: 36
  • LA Valley: 36
  • West LA: 29 (up 61 percent from the same time frame last year)

Serious pedestrian injuries (e.g., injuries requiring medical care):

  • Central LA: 126 (up nearly 50 percent from the same time frame last year)
  • South LA: 107
  • Los Angeles Valley: 108
  • West Los Angeles: 116

The Need for a Los Angeles Car Accident Attorney

These are sobering statistics, and they make it plain that there will continue to be way too many pedestrian-related accidents in Los Angeles, at least for a while.

If you have been injured in an incident like this, or have lost a loved one to traffic violence, make sure you seek the maximum monetary compensation that is your due. A Los Angeles car accident lawyer can help. Reach out to us directly to learn more.