NYPD language change signals increased emphasis on traffic safety

By Robbie Webber

Although many law enforcement agencies and media outlets have moved away from using the word “accident” for vehicle collisions, the New York Police Department has only recently made the change, instead substituting the word “collision.”

“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,” said Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly.

Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group, applauded the change, which his organization has pushed for many years. “An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head,” he said. “Collisions can be prevented.”

The new terminology is part of an increased emphasis on investigating crashes that are not life-threatening. Previously, what had been known as the Accident Investigation Squad—now called the Collision Investigation Squad—was sent only when at least one victim had died or was deemed by first responders to be “likely to die.” This resulted in serious crashes and injuries not receiving sufficient investigation, which is crucial for lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

In addition to providing data for legal proceedings, investigation of less serious crashes will help planners and engineers understand how to make the streets safer for all users. New York has received praise for improving conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists, with protected bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and other infrastructure, urban design, and amenities. In fact, bicycling has quadrupled in the last decade. But with the new initiatives pedestrian, bicyclist, and even driver fatalities were up from July 2011 to June 2012. Distracted walking and driving has been blamed for some of the increase. Traffic Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn reports grabbing several people as they were about to walk into traffic while staring at their smart phones. However, the 2012 increase was the first increase since 2007.

Bicycle advocates also criticize the NYPD for an increased emphasis on ticketing bicyclists. While agreeing that all road users should follow traffic laws, they point out that motorists’ traffic violations can have far more serious consequences than those by bicyclists. Stories of bicyclists ticketed for not riding in the bike lane, even when the lane is blocked, as well as bicyclists receiving multiple tickets within minutes, seem like overkill to those who recently have discovered the freedom of biking in the city.

While a change in language and better bicycle and pedestrian facilities are welcomed by those on two wheels or two feet, it appears the NYPD still has a way to go to satisfy those concerned about safety while traveling on New York streets.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.