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Probe into use of the word ‘accident’

National Highways tests new terms like "Incident, Collision, Crash" to replace "Accident" on signage, following advocacy and feedback.


Using the word ‘accident’ for a road crash has long been a bone of contention as it implies that the event in question was blameless, whereas the vast majority of crashes happen as a result of driver error.

Now National Highways is exploring alternatives to the word ‘accident’ following pressure from families affected by traffic collisions, road safety groups and politicians. The Government-owned company has come under pressure to stop using the word on its public information signage, such as its overhead gantries.

National Highways has previously explained that the word was used in legislation and it would need to seek permission from the Department for Transport (DfT) to change collision messaging. However, it has now confirmed it is testing alternative language among customers, to seek road users’ approval before approaching the DfT.

A National Highways spokesperson said:

We began looking into it as a result of feedback from families impacted by road traffic collisions and in consultation with colleagues in DfT.

It is now testing the words “Incident, Collision and Crash” as well as “Accident” with customers. The move has been welcomed by road safety bodies, who have long called for an end to use of the word in the industry and beyond.

Edmund King, AA president, said:

Most ‘accidents’ are not accidents because they could have been avoided by better driving or paying better attention to the conditions. These are incidents, collisions, or crashes rather than accidents. We are pleased to see National Highways are considering alternatives because calling every crash an ‘accident’ almost implies that the crash was inevitable. In most cases, it is not.

Nick Simmons, CEO of RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims, which has led a long-term ‘Crash Not Accident’ campaign on behalf of its members, said:

We are delighted to learn that National Highways has accepted the need to replace the word ‘accident’ with a more neutral and appropriate alternative on its variable messaging signs. The word ‘accident’ is inaccurate in many cases, as it suggests that something was unavoidable and beyond control. Yet, the majority of road crashes are preventable.

Simmons added the word ‘accident’ wrongly normalises road crashes as inevitable.

Changing language is vital to changing attitudes and we thank National Highways for listening to our calls for reform and for playing its part in helping to change public perception around road harm,

he said.

Jamie Hassall, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), said organisations such as National Highways and DfT “need to be leading by example”.

The use of language is a critical part of this,

he said, adding “the use of ‘accident’ is outdated, inaccurate, and harmful to moving road safety forwards.

Most collisions are predictable and preventable and using the wrong terminology can indicate no action could have been taken to prevent it from happening. Stopping the use of ‘accident’ on gantries is a good first step and it was refreshing hearing Mark Cartwright from National Highways say, ‘Vehicles don’t crash, people do’ at their recent conference.


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