When should the word "accident" be replaced with "crash"? In my practice as a clinical and forensic psychologist specializing in trauma resulting from vehicular crashes we often use the word accident to describe the event. However, often the traumatic event was not the result of behaviors that are unintentional in the sense of some level of personal negligence can be attributed. Such behaviors that could be considered negligent would include drinking, drugging, texting, speeding, and driving while fatigued.

The need to use the word crash was highlighted in a 1997 campaign initiated by the National Traffic Safety Administration to describe traffic events that are avoidable. The idea was to assign personal responsibility for traffic events in which the driver decided to drive while impaired from consuming alcohol. It was not viewed as an accident if someone made the decision to drink and drive and caused vehicles to crash.

I have treated many patients who were victimized by drunk drivers. Often these patients suffered severe physical and psychological injuries as a result of the crash. The psychological injuries were frequently compounded by the knowledge the event could have been avoided if the driver who hit them had not made the decision to drink and drive. The issue of avoidability and culpability typically plays heavily on the injured person’s mind. In many of my patients injured by drunk drivers, their lives have been turned upside and permanently altered. Some live in chronic physical and emotional pain suffering such conditions as PTSD, panic disorder, agoraphobia, sleep disturbance and severe anxiety and depression. One patient has not been pain free for twenty five years since an intoxicated teen driving crashed into her causing massive physical and psychological injuries.  The fact the teen died has further complicated her psychological recovery. 

The bottom line is that most auto crashes are avoidable by reducing or eliminating behaviors that put drivers at risks. Thanks to grassroots organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Families for Safe Streets and their dogged legislative and public relations work, public awareness has grown, laws have become more strict, and as a result we are somewhat safer when we drive. But there is still much work to do, and we must begin by examining our own driving habits to eliminate at-risk behaviors.  

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