Road violence and the English language

Orwell, again

My previous post included a long quotation from George Orwell, and an explanation of how fully he grasped the importance of safe speeds and collision-resistant infrastructure. Here are some excerpts from that remarkable 1946 statement.



In the following brief post I will again quote Orwell at length. But today the subject is how we talk and write about traffic violence, and I’ll be quoting the opening section of his famous essay Politics and the English Language, also written in 1946.

Orwell writes:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

There’s a great deal of wisdom in those two paragraphs, which I urge you to read a second and third time. The crucial contentions are that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” leading to detrimental actions, and that we can find our way out of that vicious circle by improving our language one word at a time.

No accident

There is no better example of language that is both slovenly and damaging than the use of the word “accident” as applied to vehicular collisions. It’s not easy to pinpoint how that term came to be the default descriptor for all manner of traffic violence. Nor is it easy to summarize all the pernicious associations and effects of a word that focuses far too much on intention, and far too little on consequences. What I can say, after reading countless thousands of reports about traffic ‘accidents’, is that the ‘a’ word is both the cause and the effect of a disturbingly cavalier approach to death and injury on our roads.

With Orwellian acuity, M.A.D.D. founder Candace Lightner identified the a-word as a symptom of an uncaring society in 1983, two years after the death of her daughter in a hit-and-run collision.

In the spirit of Ralph Nader’s groundbreaking vehicle safety advocacy, Lightner’s M.A.D.D. campaign set out to radically change attitudes toward drinking and driving. Needless to say, she made rapid and effective progress throughout the US and beyond.

Since 2013 Lightner’s We Save Lives campaign has been raising awareness and tightening legislation around drugged, drunk and distracted driving. Here, too, the effort is to create a virtuous cycle of clear thinking—as manifested in good data and precise language—leading to better actions.

Lightner’s critique of “accident” language did not gain much traction until the recent Drop the A Word campaign, featured in the New York Times and waged daily on Twitter with the aid of the #crashnotaccident hashtag.

The Drop the ‘A’ Word campaign has largely been aimed at journalists, and its biggest success to date has been in convincing the Associated Press to add a “crash not accident” section to their stylebook.

Click on the tweet above for a thread showing how these conversations have played out in real time.

On the basis of my own “crash not accident” advocacy I was recently invited to assume editorship of the Drop The ‘A’ Word campaign. I didn’t hesitate to take on that pro bono work, which entails running the Twitter feed and blog post. I knew I had made the right decision when I received a letter of thanks from Candace Lightner herself!

I hope you’ll join me in continuing the tradition of Orwell and Lightner, seeking to eliminate the detrimental attitudes and actions arising from slovenly language and foolish thoughts.

Stay tuned for future blog posts on related language issues. Join the conversation on Twitter. And please donate to Vision Zero Canada to support this work and receive provocative weatherproof stickers.

Yours in solidarity,

Graham Larkin

Executive Director
Vision Zero Canada / Love 30 Canada


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