Contrary to SFPD Policy, Police Still Refer to “Collisions” as “Accidents”

Anyone who keeps track of the daily reports that come out of the SFPD’s press office might be surprised to learn that the department has a policy of using the term “collision” — not “accident” — when referring to traffic crashes. That’s because, in practice, the SFPD’s top brass and press officers use “accident” as their term of choice, while “collision” is used only occasionally.

SFPD's Major Accident Investigation Team inspects the scene of ## fatal crash between a bicycle rider and a Muni driver## Friday. Image: KTVU

“It has always been ‘collision.’ ‘Accident’ is a term that is misused. There is always someone at fault, therefore, not an accident but a collision,” said SFPD spokesperson Albie Esparza when asked about the discrepancy.

But SFPD regresses into “accident” mode very often. The department’s most recent press release on a traffic collision was yesterday, sent out with the subject line, “Traffic Accident at Third and Gilman Streets”:

The San Francisco Police Department responded to a traffic accident at approximately 12:59 pm.  A 12 year old child was transported to SFGH for medical treatment. An accident investigation is taking place, and anyone who may have witnessed the accident is encouraged to call the police.

“We all grew up with the term ‘car accident,’ but in truth, they are traffic collisions,” said SFPD Deputy Chief Mike Biel after a City Hall hearing on an apparent pattern of hostility and bias against bicycle riders in crash investigations. “Nobody goes out in the morning trying to crash their car into somebody or into something, so it’s not done on purpose obviously — unless they were driving recklessly and we can show that there was negligence — but they are traffic collisions.”

The department could do a lot more to show that it’s committed to the idea that traffic violence is preventable. The term “accident,” for instance, remains institutionalized in the name of the SFPD’s Major Accident Investigation Team, whose members could be seen sporting their “MAIT”-embroidered jackets last Friday, at the site where a Muni bus driver ran over and killed 78-year-old Cheng Jin Lai on his bike. The SFPD’s website also lists a phone number for an “Accident Investigation” hotline.

The SFPD’s daily press recaps also regularly use the term “vehicle accident” for crashes like the October 4 incidents in which a trucker crushed and killed 68-year-old Emitt Jackson, and the crash at Sunset Boulevard and Wawona Street, in which a 56-year-old woman crossing the street was struck by a driver and hospitalized with life-threatening injuries. The practice is compounded when the SFPD’s statements are repeated in media reports.

New York City’s police department updated its lexicon by adopting the term “collision” this spring. While Streetsblog NYC reported three months later that NYPD was still using “accident” in its monthly reports and on its website at the time, the department soon corrected its reports after the inconsistency was pointed out.

For the SFPD, it’s unclear when “collision” became the official term. As noted above, Esparza claimed “it has always been ‘collision,'” but the General Orders listed on the SFPD’s website include a section titled “Vehicle Accidents,” adopted in 1994 [PDF].

The language we use to describe traffic violence is important. Do the officials charged with keeping our streets safe deem traffic crashes to be preventable tragedies that should be tackled with better street design and targeted traffic enforcement, or just an inevitable fact of life?

Bryan Goebel contributed reporting.

  • als

    Get the SFPD out of thier patrol cars, on to bikes and foot and the entire mindset of the department will change (as will the vocabulary).

  • keenplanner

    Collisions is the word to use. I’m having the same conversation at my government workplace.

  • Anonymous

    “Accident” does not imply that no one is at fault. The entire debate is meaningless. Find something serious to get worried about.

  • Upright Biker

    “Accidents” are what babies have in their diapers, @yermom72, and rarely does anyone die from them. “Collisions” are what occur when two vehicles meet unexpectedly, and if one of them is a car and one is a bike, the results are significantly more unpleasant.

    So yes, the language we use _is_ serious, and we _are_ worried about it.

  • Upright Biker

    This morning on the local NPR station, KQED, trusty announcer Joe McConnell used the term “accident” throughout his traffic report.

    If even the most intelligent media are using faulty terminology, I’d say we have a long education haul in front of us…

  • mikesonn

    Who funds “the most intelligent media”?

  • Guest

    Yes, they are always “collisions” and never “accidents” because somebody is always at fault. Blame for having to make this distinction can be placed squarely on the shoulders of lawyers.

    The term “collision” was driven home to me throughout my internship experiences, including at SFMTA. However, as I’ve learned through my years as a transportation professional, police officers are rather intransigent about the term. Sometimes you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.

  • David D.

    Yes, they are always “collisions” and never “accidents” because somebody is always at fault. Blame for having to make this distinction can be placed squarely on the shoulders of lawyers. Use of the correct term is rather important, but as I’ve learned over my years as a transportation professional, police officers can be rather intransigent about the term.

  • Guest

    I deleted this comment. Why does it still show up?

  • Upright Biker

    Ah, brought to you by the Chevrolet Volt, the Toyota Prius, and Subaru. Love. That’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.

    And a potential “Collision” partner. The toughest kind of Love.

  • Luke

    I tend to agree. I get it, and always say “collision” or “crash” myself, but I don’t think it’s nearly as serious an issue as, the fact that most law enforcement officers have a windshield perspective and little idea of what it takes to effectively and efficiently operate a bicycle on city streets. I don’t think the hyperbole below is especially helpful (both “collision” and “accident” have many other possible definitions and I’m not aware of any evidence that calling it one or the other implies that the speaker is taking the event more or less seriously). There are many people highly sympathetic with pedestrians and bicyclists who still call collisions “accidents” out of habit, and plenty of more important battles to fight.

  • Anonymous

    But people have been dying from “accidents” for years, no matter what they are called. And “accident” is the term which implies some one is at fault — whether those involved in the accident, or at some level of planning or oversight, “accident” implies something that was preventable.

    “Collision” implies there is no one at fault, and what happened was merely statistical, a physical interaction like the interaction of particles, and probably unavoidable in any large, complex system. You can have “collisions” without intentionality, but not “accidents.”

  • mikesonn

    what are the words you are typing? they don’t mean what you think they mean, which is the problem we are trying to get addressed.

  • Anonymous

    Clearly, they don’t mean what +you+ think they mean, hence the frustration in getting people to make this meaningless, and really counter-intuitive change…

    My point is, and I can’t see how this is at all unclear, that the concept of an “accident” implies that there was some agency or intentionality which caused the accident (it couldn’t be an accident otherwise). “Collision” erases that inherent intentionality, and thus the presumption of fault.

    Two meteors, if you will, can have a “collision” in space — they can’t have an “accident” because no one is steering them.

  • copyeditor

    The appropriate word, IMO, would be “incident”

  • Anonymous

    I prefer “traffic oopsie”

  • Anonymous

    Or maybe “motor-blooper”

  • Anonymous

    Wait, how does accident imply fault? I thought it was the other way around, accident removes fault.

    To bring up another unrelated example:

    “I accidentally broke your glass, I’m so sorry.”

    “It’s not your fault, it was an accident. Plus they’re from ikea anyway.”

    So here, accident means there was no fault. Accidents just happen. Which of these is an accident: breaking a glass, or running over kids on the sidewalk when you’re 90 and probably shouldn’t be driving.

    Also: “An accident, mishap, or, more archaically, misadventure, is an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance, often with lack of intention or necessity.” (

  • Anonymous

    But even when “accident” is used that way, to excuse fault, it nevertheless is based on the assumption that a fault was there to be excused. So it does presume that some person or persons caused or led to the accident, or it couldn’t be called an “accident.”

    A “collision” is merely a physical event. It’s like saying, “the gun went off” which avoids the question of who pulled the trigger. Seeing as the arguments made above were about the implications and impressions made by language, it seems like an agentless description like “collision” would be more likely to let drivers off the hook, not less.

  • Anonymous

    You could read the wikipedia link I put above, but here’s the key passage:

    “Experts in the field of injury prevention avoid use of the term ‘accident’ to describe events that cause injury in an attempt to highlight the predictable and preventable nature of most injuries. Such incidents are viewed from the perspective of epidemiology as predictable and preventable. Preferred words are more descriptive of the event itself, rather than of its unintended nature (e.g., collision,drowning, fall, etc.)”

    The problem is that saying something is an accident removes fault. Perhaps you’re right, maybe it implies fault at some point, but removes agency/fault/blame such that it’s a problem to continue using it. I’m not sure collision is perfect either, but as it says in the wikipedia stub, it’s a way of describing what happened in a neutral way. Fault or even whether it was an accident is then determined later.

  • Anonymous

    And what’s the effect of these words down the line, when it becomes less clear who the operator of a vehicle is? Say one autonomously-guided car hits another, is this a collision or an accident? A “collision” implies nobody at fault, if no one was driving. An “accident” presumes, well, someone somewhere caused this. Could it be the programmers or designers of the automated system?

    By excising the relation between the event and a doer of that event, we might be setting ourselves up for some mischief, if no one can be held accountable for the “collisions” caused by automated vehicles…

  • Anonymous

    Ok, we’ve determined you don’t like collision, but accident is also a very imperfect word. People do not use “accident” the way that you are trying to. Since use determines language meaning (why irregardless is now in the dictionary, lol), that’s a problem that still needs solving.

  • Anonymous

    And I can see the argument, at least, for “collision” as a physical description which leaves the determination of fault until later. But that is in fact the exact opposite of the reasons given earlier.

    Also, people do use the word accident the way I am describing, which is the reason why “collision” is having trouble making headway based on this counterintuitive argument. Consider also: if someone comes to you and says, “There’s been an accident….” aren’t you instantly worried or frightened? The word is blood-red from long usage for just this sort of thing.

    Whereas, if they were to say, “There’s been a collision…” Um, so?

  • Anonymous

    You’re right, people say accident to refer to a collision, but they also say it to remove blame or because they don’t know who was at fault.

    Language is a slippery slope and very murky, but the problem with using accident is that it forecloses fault and removes agency. The use of accident was not necessarily an accident (implying purpose, and pun intended). A way of dealing with the 30,000+ deaths a year from car accidents is to remove all fault from drivers, roads, engineers, land planners, etc. “Hey, it was just an accident.” “Accidents happen.” etc. are a normal part of our language.

    Also, in regards to the scenarios you’ve suggested, tone would be the main communicator of tragedy/urgency in those cases. Either could imply a tragedy, but that’s not what we’re concerned with in this conversation so much as fault or agency in an accident/collision/crash/motor-blooper.

    “It was a tragic accident” is the end of an investigation whereas “it was a tragic collision” is the beginning of an investigation.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree. There is a difference between calling something an accident, and excusing an accident. Accidents (meaning when you are aiming for one result and achieve another) are only “excused” when they are insignificant. In the case of driving a motor vehicle, your responsibility to do so in a safe manner precludes “accident” from being used as a reasonable excuse. In this fundamental sense accident means error, and “it was an error” is not always a valid excuse.

    The argument that “accident” always is dismissive is like arguing that “actor” can never mean “someone who does something” because it also means “someone who pretends to do something on a stage.” The first meaning is more fundamental and is in fact presumed by the second.

  • Upright Biker

    Amen, @coolbabybookworm:disqus. Thanks for taking on the troll.

  • mikesonn

    Your interpretation of this?

    “We believe in this case it was a tragic accident, but it wasn’t criminal,” attorney Tony Tamburello, whose firm is representing Burnoski, said Tuesday.

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t the “criminal” question in that case, not about whether he hit the woman, but whether he left the scene and did not report the accident? And they are claiming he did not know… they are not claiming he did not hit the woman.

    The prosecutors are going for manslaughter, which sounds exactly like the charge for someone being held culpable for an “accidental” death… further evidence that “it was an accident” is not always an excuse.

  • mikesonn

    You are good at what you do and my meaning of “good” is open to interpretation.

  • Anonymous

    Have a good night, then!

  • CarsRuleBikesDrool

    and I prefer “bicycle poopsie”

  • Nathan

    Here is a simple distinction:

    “Collision” – means some type of impact between vehicles and persons happened.

    “Accident” – means there was no deliberate intent to cause the collision by any party involved.

    “Blame/fault/liability” – a determination made by examination of the facts by some neutral party which may lead to an insurance claim, court judgment or criminal proceedings..

    Each word has a different meaning.

  • davistrain

    I’m reminded of the old comment, “Accidents will happen, but must you give them so much help?”

  • @Nathan – These are good distinctions, but I still have a hard time with “accident” being used for choices that cause collisions. Drunk or texting drivers are usually not deliberately intending on a collision, but the results of their choices are no accident.


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