The crusade against the A-word
The Orwellian removal of the word 'accident' from Britain's Highway Code shows we have a pretty primitive attitude to everyday misfortune.
It’s official – there is no longer any such thing as an accident.
The word ‘accident’ is to be banned from the new edition of Britain’s Highway Code, which is published by the UK Department of Transport. Instead the words ‘collision’, ‘crash’ or ‘incident’ will be used to describe events that once were known as accidents.
This adoption of new terms for everyday events does not only have linguistic significance. The banning of the A-word is a consequence of a broader cultural outlook which insists that nothing happens accidentally these days and that there is always someone to blame.
The change in terminology reflects a dramatic shift in the way that Anglo-American societies make sense of human experience. The compulsion to blame is growing all the time. That is why the word accident is being written out of existence. Those who crusade against the A-word claim that describing collisions between cars as an ‘accident’ encourages people to view such occurrences as unavoidable – and in such circumstances it is difficult to point the finger of blame at someone else.
The Orwellian manipulation of language by the Department of Transport is only the latest phase in a culture war against the word ‘accident’. For some time, safety experts and health promotion activists have campaigned against the very idea of an accident. Public health officials will often argue that the injuries people suffer are usually avoidable and thus it is irresponsible to say they were simply caused in an ‘accident’.
America’s emergency medicine establishment is at the forefront of the campaign to quash the A-word. In June 2001, the prestigious British Medical Journal signed up to the crusade, explaining in an editorial why it had decided to ban the word accident from its pages. ‘[S]ince most injuries and precipitating events are predictable and preventable’, the word accident should not be used to refer to ‘injuries or the events that produce them’ (1).
Critics of the Highway Code’s cleansing of the A-word have rightly raised concerns about the encouragement of a ‘blame agenda’. Nigel Humphries of the Association of British Drivers says the change will ‘encourage a blame culture instead of a prevention culture’. It is no doubt true that the removal of the word accident will give rise to more litigiousness – but there are also profound cultural issues at stake here.
Changes in terminology are always underwritten by new cultural attitudes. And writing off the A-word highlights the profound difficulty that Western societies have in accepting that misfortune is part of life. We seem unable to accept the fact that bad things just happen. Instead we desperately try to discover a reason behind every incident. We explore our illnesses and injuries to discover their hidden meaning. The notion that someone we love may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time is antithetical to today’s need to endow every misadventure with purpose.
Human beings have, of course, always had a vocabulary that helped them to make sense of unexpected events, particularly events that are shocking and painful. Today, the demand for an explanation is accompanied by the tireless search for someone or something to blame. Our litigious culture has helped to foster a climate where adverse experiences are readily blamed on other people’s negligence. The desire to blame – to argue that complex realities are the fault of some malevolent actor – is motivated by a pretty primitive search for simplistic answers. In the Dark Ages, people’s illnesses and epidemics of plagues were seen as some kind of punishment; evil witches (often people who were ill) were burned at the stake. In Stalinist Russia the phrase ‘it is no accident…’ was routinely used to imply that every negative event was really an act of collusion amongst hostile forces.
And today we have the flourishing of conspiracy theories that deny the very possibility that events occur by chance. The new accident-free Highway Code is the product of pretty sick blame-seeking culture.
Frank Furedi is author most recently of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum. Visit his website here.
Frank Furedi argued that you can’t ban accidents. John Adams wrote an essay in defence of bad luck. Jenny Cunningham argued that children must be allowed to play on in spite of potential accidents. Timandra Harkness argued there’s more to roads than accidents. Or read more at: spiked issue Risk,
(1) ‘BMJ bans “accidents”’, British Medical Journal, 2 June 2001
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