Across the United States, more than 30,000 people a year are being killed in traffic, and this number is rising. Houston itself sees nearly the highest number of traffic deaths per capita in the country, and so many of these victims are children — traffic being the most common cause of death for people under 18. And this doesn't even account for the 2.5 million people who will be seriously injured (meaning a life-altering injury, such as brain damage or paralysis).
The way we talk about these serious injuries and deaths is one thing that prevents us from addressing this public health crisis. Everyone knows someone who has been killed or injured in a traffic "accident." Maybe they stepped in front of a "right-turning car," or they were careless enough to be biking in front of a driveway "in dark clothing."
Or maybe they "darted across" a six-lane road, too slow to avoid a "speeding car."
All this language is familiar enough, either from news reports about traffic collisions or from the way we describe them ourselves. But it suggests that people are being killed unavoidably, by uncontrollable, inanimate objects, due to their own carelessness. That's a narrative that lets us accept the dangers of traffic as an inherent cost of our mobility, rather than asking how we can save our loved ones' lives.
Last November 18, was the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, and it's a day to remember those whose lives have been lost or forever altered by traffic. Let's remember them not as careless victims of random acts of nature, but as people trying to get around their cities, just as we all do everyday — as we all should be able to do safely.
Crash, not accident
First of all, almost no traffic injuries or deaths are "accidents." Almost all are preventable by smarter street design, slower speeds and safe behavior. We would never say that someone was killed in a "plane accident." In a plane crash, all the factors that may have been a cause are investigated, and a plan is made to avoid a similar tragedy in the future. The same protocol should be in place after a serious car crash: Were the people involved confused by unclear signs or signals? Was a driver speeding or looking at his phone? Would reducing the speed limit or lane widths of a particular street prevent deadly high speed crashes in the future?
When we acknowledge that crashes are almost always preventable, we can begin to ask these questions. If you are reading this, pledge never to say "traffic accident" again, and ask anyone else who says it to do the same. When we completely remove "accident" from our vocabulary in this context, we will have changed the way our culture perceives the preventability of traffic deaths.
A car does not act on its own
In the 1966 short film "What on Earth! The Automobile Inherits the Planet," invading space aliens observe Earth's cities and assume that cars are the dominant form of life. It would be easy to think so, given how much our cities have been designed for them. But it's imperative to remember that humans operate these vehicles. Getting behind the wheel of a two-ton machine, drivers take on a responsibility for the lives of those on the road around them.
When describing a crash, it's often interchangeable to say that "a car" or "a driver" swerved into the wrong lane or sideswiped another car or bicyclist. We must always remember that the person operating the vehicle is the one who did those things, whether intentionally or not. A car does not act on its own (even with autonomous vehicles, liability still rests in the people who design and program them).
Don't blame the victim
It's easy to look for a way that a victim could have prevented a crash, since they are likely not there to tell their story. Maybe if a pedestrian struck down at night had worn a lightly colored shirt, he would have been more visible. Maybe if a bicyclist had worn a helmet, she would have survived being thrown through the air.
Maybe, but maybe not. This diverted blame is a distraction from the onus of drivers operating potentially deadly machines and city engineers who are responsible to design safe roadways.
Some questions that we need to ask instead are: How did the built environment influence a crash? Why did a victim cross a road where she did? How far away was a crosswalk? How long would she have waited for a signal?
How many similar crashes have occurred nearby? What can be done to prevent them?
If we can all commit to changing the way we talk about traffic injuries and deaths, we will be on the road to changing the way our culture thinks about preventing them. As we honor and remember those injured or killed in traffic crashes, let's pledge to change our language, to be precise about what is actually causing them.
Colleen Corcoran is a designer, advocate and co-founder of Los Angeles's open streets event, CicLAvia. She is a native Houstonian, living in Los Angeles.