Cars don’t kill people; people kill people.

the car that did it
© Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images

This was all academic, a discussion of why cars get "agency", until this past weekend when everything changed.

This is a subject I have been noodling around about for months: why is it that when there is a crash involving a car and a human, the driver of the car seems to be little more than a witness. If they are found to have been texting or drinking, now deemed to be socially unacceptable, then they are blamed. But otherwise, in most cases, the crash becomes an “accident” -- an unavoidable mishap, a tragedy for everyone concerned. The car, in the meantime, is given what in sociology is called “agency”, a mind of its own. Wikipedia defines it as “the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment.”


My two favourite examples come from Don Kostelec shown above, who finds two articles from the same paper, where drivers of cars actively kill horses, but people are passively killed by cars. A difference in words and voice.


Or the more hilarious one from Kyle Miller in Halifax, where drivers kill geese but cars kill or injure people.


But it was all fun and games until this last weekend in Charlottesville, where the twisting and turning over how to deal with the car reached new heights.


Many people did this, but poor journalist Kim Fischer wins the prize with her tweet about the vehicle being accused of hitting people, which is even worse than a car hitting people. But she was certainly not alone. Nobody wanted to actually say “terrorist hits protesters with car.”

kim fisher tweetTwitter/Screen capture

I said “poor Kim Fischer” because she really tried to engage with all of us furious tweeters and explained her careful choice of words, that her tweet was sent out so soon after the event that she really didn’t even know if there was anyone in the car. I am not convinced, given the content of the tweet she is quoting, but at least she tried, and has deleted the tweet. As Doug Gordon notes, we don’t do this with any other weapon.


She was not alone; a few journalists engaged in this discussion. I was impressed with the comments from the Washington Post's Martin Weil:



Giving agency to the car is almost universal. Even in a powerful Washington Post editorial recently, the concluding sentence was:

washington postWashington post/Screen capture

But where did it come from? Probably the same place as the use of the word “accident” instead of “crash”. This has been an issue for years. Accident relieved the driver of responsibility; it couldn’t be helped. Or everyone was responsible, just as the President suggests that all parties were responsible for Charlottesville. Charlottesville got both.


It was language that went back decades; as the Crash not Accident website notes,

Before the labor movement, factory owners would say "it was an accident" when American workers were injured in unsafe conditions. Before the movement to combat drunk driving, intoxicated drivers would say "it was an accident" when they crashed their cars. Planes don’t have accidents. They crash. Cranes don’t have accidents. They collapse. And as a society, we expect answers and solutions. Traffic crashes are fixable problems, caused by dangerous streets and unsafe drivers. They are not accidents. Let’s stop using the word "accident" today.

After many years of campaigning and complaining, many newsrooms have clued into this and have stopped using the word accident. But using car instead of driver, using passive voice instead of active, works much the same way; "pedestrian hit by car" has a very different ring than "driver hits pedestrian". it eliminates the driver and their action from the story altogether.

Charlottesville should be the impetus to get really serious about a Driver not Car campaign too.

Tags: Transportation | Virginia

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