What are Accidents?


Groundhog Day

I tune into NPR’s 90.3 Ideastream every morning on my way into work. I know, big surprise, a recent Literature graduate from a liberal arts school listens to NPR. Regardless, as you may know, they give a Cleveland traffic update a few times each morning, which usually goes like this: Traffic is slow on east shore way. Traffic is at a standstill on the interbelt going into downtown. 77 north is backed up all the way to Brecksville. It reminds me that I’m lucky to only deal with little ol’ Macedonia, OH traffic.

What I always pay special attention to, though, is how many traffic accidents they report. It boggles my mind. They report at least three to five traffic accidents on Cleveland’s freeways alone every day, and usually in the same locations. When there aren’t any accidents, the DJ will say “No traffic accidents, yet.” He tries to maintain his radio-standard inflection, but he’s unsuccessful in masking his surprise.

Holding Up Traffic

I immediately begin thinking about the people in those accidents. They were probably on their way to work, thinking about the day ahead, stressing about how much they have to accomplish. Their narrative is suddenly interrupted with a tremendous thud and a violent lurch as they are caught by their seat belt (hopefully that’s the case). It’s surreal that they’re parked somewhere on the side of the highway, back fender bashed in, while I listen to a radio host talk about how they’re holding up traffic.

How Many Today?

I feel equal amounts of sympathy and frustration towards these people. How many accidents will there be until we all learn our lesson? Don’t these people know any better? Psychologists’ and safety experts’ explanation as to why people have accidents is tied up in these two questions, but we need to know what an accident is to begin to understand why we have them. So for now, know that the answers are, respectively, we probably won’t and they probably don’t.

Are Accidents Really Accidents

An accident is an unplanned event, that disrupts activity, involves or affects people, and has a cause. Most of this definition is pretty self-evident, especially when thought about in context of the accidents NPR mentions every morning. The drivers didn’t mean to get into a car accident. If they did, it would be a crime. Instead, it’s an unplanned event. The car accident disrupted their activity of going to work. The accident obviously involved people and affected everyone else who is now stuck behind traffic.

Don’t Blame it on the Rain

We need to focus on the last part of the definition, though: accidents have a cause. The cause is always people and their unsafe behaviors. Always? Yes, always. If you give us an example of a traffic accident, we can give you the reason a person caused it. Ice on the road and you rear end someone? You didn’t leave enough following distance. Trip over the dishwasher that doesn’t stay shut? Look where you’re going and fix the dishwasher door.

Prevention > Blame

Saying accidents are caused by people sounds like I’m looking for someone to blame. Blame doesn’t get you anywhere though if you’re in the business of prevention. Knowing that accidents have a cause is all about focusing on the “why” rather than the “who” or the “what.” Pinpoint the unsafe behavior that causes accidents, correct it, and you will successfully avoid them. If that weren’t possible, we’d be at the mercy of coincidence.