A year and a half ago, Mathieu Lefevre, a 30-year-old artist and resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was hit and killed by the driver of a truck while riding his bicycle. The driver left the scene and later claimed he had no idea he had struck anyone. Lefevre’s family, who are from Canada, traveled to the United States to protest the lax investigation of their son’s death by the New York City Police Department.
The driver was never charged in the case, and the Lefevre family went to court to protest the way information about their son’s death had been withheld from them – a case that was eventually dismissed as moot.
The NYPD’s attitude toward what happened that October night in 2011 was summed up by a remark made by an officer to Metro, a local newspaper:
“There’s no criminality,” an NYPD spokesman told Metro. “That’s why they call it an accident.”
But police in New York won’t be calling occurrences like the one that took Lefevre’s life “accidents” any longer – at least not officially. According to a report in The New York Times, as part of a package of reforms in the way it handles traffic fatalities, the NYPD is now replacing the term “accident" with the word “collision."
"It’s not just semantics," says Paul Steely White, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. "It underscores a new approach."
There has been a global movement over the past few years to change the way people talk about traffic deaths. The British group RoadPeace has been one of the advocacy organizations calling for change, and recently tried – unsuccessfully – to get The Guardian to change its style from “accident” to “crash” or “collision” – a change that was made by the peer-reviewed BMJ (British Medical Journal) back in 2001.
To explain the importance of language in this case, RoadPeace cites [PDF] a key passage from a 2010 report [PDF] by the Campaign for Global Road Safety, authored by Kevin Watkins of Oxford University:
The vocabulary of the road traffic injury epidemic helps to explain the neglect. While child deaths from, say, malaria are viewed as avoidable tragedies that can be stopped through government action, road traffic deaths and injuries are widely perceived as ‘accidents’ – unpredictable events happening on a random basis to people who have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The vocabulary is out of step with reality. Road traffic fatalities and injuries are accidents only in the narrow technical sense that they are not intended outcomes. They are eminently predictable, and we know in advance the profile of the victims. Of the 3,500 people who will die on the world’s roads today around 3000 will live in a developing country and at least half will be a pedestrian or vulnerable road user who is not driving a car. When it comes to road traffic injury, the future is not just predictable – it is also changeable. Far from being the consequence of forces beyond human control, road traffic death and disability is in large measure the consequence of government action and inaction.
In New York, the police department has been criticized for many years by Transportation Alternatives and other advocacy groups for its reluctance to press criminal charges in traffic deaths. Even as the city has made enormous advances in street design and in education campaigns about traffic safety, enforcement has lagged.
As I wrote in a piece about pedestrian deaths a couple of weeks back, the words “no criminality is suspected” have become a kind of catchphrase for an attitude that deaths caused by automobiles are just part of the price we have to pay for living in a densely populated modern city. The NYPD’s way of talking about and handling these cases has added to an atmosphere that makes it difficult for prosecutors to prove that reckless drivers are acting outside of the standards that would be observed by a “reasonable person.”
But the changes in NYPD policy indicate the department’s attitude might finally be shifting along with its language. Until now, the department’s Accident Investigation Squad has only been deployed when a crash victim was dead or assessed as “likely to die.” Now, that unit – soon to be renamed the Collision Investigation Squad – will respond when there has been a critical injury or when a Police Department duty captain believes the extent of the injuries and/or unique circumstances of a collision warrant such action,” according to a letter to the City Council from NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly cited by the Times. Kelly also wrote: "In the past, the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event." It is a huge change in tone for a department that has come under increasing pressure in recent years to reform its approach to traffic fatalities.
White says he is also heartened by a related policy change that will put more control over crash investigations with local precinct authorities. "It’s local police who are more concerned about what’s happening on their local streets," says White, who also noted that the new policies will lead to a more evidence-based, data-driven approach to investigating – and preventing – more traffic deaths in the city.
White adds that the changes come after family members and friends of crash victims, including Mathieu Lefevre’s, have spoken out repeatedly about the the NYPD’s flawed and opaque handling of traffic deaths.
"This would not be happening without those brave folks standing up on the steps of City Hall and testifying before the City Council," says White. "They spoke with such moral authority that it was hard for the NYPD to ignore."
Top image: Mathieu Lefevre's mother, Erika Lefevre, speaking at a Transportation Alternatives rally. (Dmitry Gudkov/Transportation Alternatives)