The government’s top transport advisory body is investigating a change of language in describing road carnage to “be more precise”, according to Transport Advisory Committee (TAC) head Professor Stephen Cheung.
Cheung was first introduced to the idea of semantic significance in crash reporting by a question in late June this year, when a reporter asked why government officials and press releases still referred to traffic crashes as “accidents” when many were predictable and preventable. Cheung then pledged to look into the matter.
Today, almost six months later, Cheung stated that the committee is “investigating what the right terms to use are, either traffic ‘accident’ or ‘collision’”.
“Of course if there are any ways that we can be more precise in our reporting, definitely that will be worth it,” Cheung said yesterday on the sidelines of the quarterly TAC meeting.
In May this year, the UK’s University of Westminster published new guidelines for the language used around road crashes, asserting that most reporting “portrays collisions as unavoidable, obscures the presence of certain actors or omits crucial context as to why these crashes happen and what can be done to prevent them”.
At the launch of the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines (RCRG), Professor Rachel Aldred said there was growing evidence that language can shape attitudes towards road safety and road users.
“Bad reporting can stigmatise and obscure the underlying causes of crashes, but conversely good reporting can be crucial in helping building public understanding about how we can avoid many of these deaths and serious injuries,” she said.
Besides avoiding the word “accident”, the RCRG recommends reporters talk about drivers, not their vehicles – so for example, when details of a crash are known, it is better to say “a driver hit a child in a pushchair” rather than “a car hit a child in a pushchair”.
Comments on the effects of language in incident reporting even appear in pop culture such as in the 2007 comedy film Hot Fuzz. The main character, a policeman, insists on a traffic crash to be called an ‘incident’ rather than an ‘accident’ as “‘accident’ implies there is nobody to blame”, obscuring the responsibility and preventability of collisions.
The word “accident” is still used in Hong Kong by default – it is included in police shorthand for road crashes such as “TAPI” (traffic accident person injured) and “TADO” (traffic accident damage only), and government press releases report of vehicles involved in “fatal traffic accidents” after having “lost control”.