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On Keeping Faith Following Severe Car Crashes

Surviving secondary victimizations.

Now that you have survived a horrible car crash that has turned your life upside down, you may find yourself thinking frequently about how you could have died or suffered even more serious injuries. The fact of the matter is you were a victim and now you are a survivor. You would think the road ahead is just a matter of getting the help you need to recover and heal. Unfortunately, for many people, the crash may only be the beginning of victimization experiences.

The study of the victim experience can be traced to at least 1764 and the writings of the Milan criminologist Cesare Beccaria entitled Of Crimes and Punishments. The idea of blaming the victim was articulated by Boston College psychologist William J. Ryan in his 1971 book Blaming the Victim. Ryan addressed African-American poverty rates and the societal pattern of blaming the victim for their victimhood.

Often in my 15 years of specializing in auto accident trauma treatment, I have observed the elephant in the room to be issues around secondary victimization. I like Andis Rinkevics’s (2015) definition of secondary victimization as “…the victimization that occurs not as a direct result of the criminal act but through the response of institutions and individuals to the victim.”

Are auto crash victims crime victims? In many cases they are, but they are often not considered as such. Often, regardless of the circumstances, they are considered accident victims which carries a very different meaning. Rinkevics wrote about ways of helping police not to revictimize crime victims. In dealing with auto or vehicular crash trauma victims, there are often reports of the police adding to the victimization experience of the crash survivors. But the police are often the first line of response the survivor encounters. The chain of various additional institutions and individuals whose interactions and actions can cause further psychological injury is long. EMS personnel, hospital emergency room staff, physicians, insurance adjustors, therapists, defense medical evaluators, defense attorneys, plaintiff attorneys, judges and on and on can respond to the victim in ways that promote healing and recovery, or add further distress to already overwhelmed and traumatized individuals. I am placing emphasis on the potential for re-traumatization because I hear about it so much from so many different patients. The examples reported by patients of rude, insensitive, incompetent, uninformed, pathological, greedy, and ignorant actions of people whose duty it is to help victims are often stunning. The criminal justice system recognized the needs of crime victims and created victim assistance programs which have made some progress with helping regular crime victims. But the system has created nothing that I know of to assist vehicular crash victims who are likewise thrown into the judicial system.

I am of course presenting a one-side account of the potentials for secondary victimization of vehicular crash victims, but this is something important that needs to be identified, discussed and researched. It is my belief that by providing improved supervision, training, education and monitoring of these institutions and their personnel, the recovery outcomes of this set of victims will be much improved. Scientific understanding of trauma has expanded greatly in the past 30 years, but I am not sure this has translated well into how service providers interact with vehicular crash victims throughout the course of their recovery. There are the big “T” traumas and the little “t” traumas that victims encounter along the road of secondary victimizations.

The bottom line, for those interacting with trauma survivors, they need to be approached with empathy and compassion. I realize these are traits that are too often in short supply in our world. But helping the survivors to regain a sense of safety and trust is the place they need to begin. As professional responders and as providers of mental and health services it is our duty and within in our ability to help in this regard. Education of institutions, providers and family members is the key.


Dussich, John P. J. Retrieved 26 February 2018

Rinkevics, Andis… Retrieved 26 February 2018