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The “A” Word

March 11, 2013

If you want to know why today’s announcement that the NYPD will no longer use the term “Accident” when referring to traffic collisions is so significant, look no further than this New York Times report by Jule Turkewitz of a crash that killed a 16-year-old boy today in Queens.  (All emphasis mine.)

Witnesses said a dark red Dodge Caravan was westbound on Thomson Avenue when it apparently lost control around 10:30 a.m., striking a group of pedestrians as they waited to cross the intersection at 30th Street.

For something to lose control, it first has to have the ability to be in control.  A van, of course, is in control of nothing.  John Del Signore at Gothamist does a much better job describing what happened, putting the control of the van in the hands of a driver:

The driver of a Dodge minivan “apparently lost control and mounted the sidewalk” at 30th Street and Thompson Avenue in Long Island City this morning, running over at least five pedestrians, according to the NYPD press office.

Turkewitz continues:

“A group of students waited at the cross signal and this car came very fast,” said Mustafa Elmor, 25, who was standing across the street from the accident when it occurred.

How does anyone at the Times know this was an “accident”?  Was the the driver speeding?  Distracted?  Drunk?  If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then this was no accident.  As Ray Kelly said,  “accident” gives “the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event.”

The driver of the van makes just one appearance in this story, and while some may take his apology as an admission of fault, it also could be interpreted as an absolution of responsibility:

A person emerged from the car screaming, “’I’m sorry, I’m sorry.'”

By appearing in the story so late and with such an apologetic tone, it appears as if the driver is as much a victim of an “out-of-control” van as the dead teenager.  He’s just Mickey Mouse, unable to reign in a bunch of out-of-control broomsticks.

Six paragraphs into the story, a witness is given his turn:

The car was speeding, John said. “I saw this kid with green cargo pants literally flying.”

So, if the driver was in fact speeding, we’ve answered one of the questions I pose above.

Turkewitz does use the term “crash” elsewhere in the story, but as Eric McClure points out, it may be more for stylistic variety than journalistic integrity.  Nevertheless, it’s not long before the dreaded “A” word is used again.

Around 12.30 p.m., hundreds of students blanketed the sidewalk across the street from the accident.

I never thought I’d write these words, but maybe the New York Times needs to start taking cues from the NYPD.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post misidentified a witness.  Mustafa Elmor was a bystander and witness to the crash, while the driver’s name has not been released.  The post has been revised and I apologize for the error.

  1. zeraien permalink
    March 11, 2013 6:39 pm

    Here in Sweden this debate also rages especially in the cycling community where those who cycle are always referred to as “cyclists” (often generalised as breaking the law etc) while those who drive are always referred to as “the car”.

    The other day a major accident occurred and the articles were full of gems like: “a car drove very carelessly” and “the car that is suspected to have caused the crash”.

    Must be one of those new google driverless cars!

    PS: Sorry to nitpick, but Mustafa Elmor appears both as a witness and as the driver, surely, something is afoot?

    ““A group of students waited at the cross signal and this car came very fast,” said Mustafa Elmor, 25, who was standing across the street”

    You then go on to say:
    “The driver of the van, Mustafa Elmor, makes just one appearance in this story”

  2. peter permalink
    March 11, 2013 9:23 pm

    zeraien is right: Elmor was a witness, not the driver. A correction is needed.

  3. March 11, 2013 10:10 pm

    Corrected. Thanks for pointing this out. My apologies.

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