Special to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
My heart is heavy with grief as I write this month’s column. A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine from my time working at the University of Arkansas was struck by an SUV and died as he was walking on the sidewalk in his Fayetteville neighborhood. He was 34 years old.
Local media reporting and public comments tended to describe the fatal event as an accident. But I, and many safety advocates, bristle at the use of the word accident to describe serious collisions on our roads.
Spilling a glass of milk is an accident. Slipping in the shower is an accident. But the stakes are just too high for vehicle collisions to be called accidents. The preferred term is crash.
This may seem like mere semantics. But I believe that words matter.
Accident implies an absence of fault. It quietly absolves negligent, careless or distracted drivers. The term accident can also let engineers and planners off the hook for designing and building transportation infrastructure that could have been safer.
This subtle change in language is just one shift in the way American cities regard traffic safety. Many have adopted “Vision Zero” plans, named for their goal of a transportation system that results in zero fatalities and severe injuries.
The state of Arkansas has its own “Toward Zero Deaths” plan. In 2012, it set a five-year goal of reducing annual deaths on the state’s roads from 500 to 400. There were 516 traffic fatalities in Arkansas in 2018. In 2020, we’re on pace to have 560. Suffice it that we’ve failed to reduce the number of people dying on our highways and roads.
These plans only work when people like you and me demand safer roads and are willing to make sacrifices and commit to fundamental change. The Vision Zero philosophy rejects the notion that traffic fatalities are inevitable and proactively tries to keep people safe. Key tenets of Vision Zero are that design should seek to prevent crashes, and that we can always afford to take steps that save lives.
Arkansas isn’t unique in struggling to protect people. More than 40,000 people die in traffic crashes each year in the United States. It’s an epidemic. Most who die are drivers and passengers in motor vehicles. But pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable road users make up a disproportionate number of victims. There were 62 pedestrian fatalities in Arkansas 2018.
Accidents are accidents, but crashes have consequences. We have a transportation system that ranks near the bottom nationally for safety and kills hundreds of Arkansans every year, and the problem is getting worse, not better.
We can do better, and certainly the victims and their families deserve better. But things will not improve on their own; we must demand change.