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'Accidents' Happen on the Road


A fellow named Tom Vanderbilt has written a 402-page book about traffic – as in lots of cars and honking horns. That doesn't sound like a page-turning thriller. But along with some fascinating details about our driving habits, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do offers a startling suggestion that could keep you up at night if it were applied to you.

Vanderbilt says it's time to stop calling some of the incidents that result in traffic deaths accidents. Forty-one thousand people died on America's roads last year, and Vanderbilt says the deaths weren't all due to happenstance, mechanical breakdowns, unforeseen events, or so-called acts of God. Drunk, drugged, sleepy, and rampaging drivers kill so many people, Vanderbilt points out, that the respected British Medical Journal stopped using the word accident in 2001. It prefers injident, meaning injury-producing incident.

In an e-mail to VOA, Vanderbilt notes that we rarely use the word accident to describe airplane crashes, because, as he puts it, it implies, "Oh well, there's really no way to avoid this; mistakes happen, etc." Yet, Vanderbilt says, even traffic fatalities involving horrendously reckless behavior are treated as "bad luck,' wrong place/wrong time, and then we basically move on.

Vanderbilt believes that one result of this cavalier attitude is that penalties for snuffing out lives with a car are vastly more lenient than judgments against people who kill by other means. First-time offenders, in particular, can kill somebody and never spend a day in jail.

Because we can all imagine it happening to us, Vanderbilt writes, we seem as a society to want to avoid heavy penalties for so-called accidental killings. . . . The result is that there's little incentive to act in a much safer manner on the road.

[Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, by Tom Vanderbilt, is published by Knopf.]