Friday, January 04, 2013

Orwellian framing on traffic accidents promotes pretext stops

Austin police are on message, as the politicos say, parroting a federal slogan, "Crashes Aren't Accidents," in a story in the Austin Statesman detailing traffic deaths since New Year's Day. “These are not accidents. They are crashes, because all of these incidents are preventable,” said senior Austin police officer Veneza Bremner. As it turns out, that framing is a PR slogan being promoted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which maintains that, "Referring to motor vehicle crashes as 'accidents' contributes to the perception that they cannot be prevented; when, in fact, very few crashes occur because of uncontrollable circumstances. Proactive traffic enforcement efforts that remove impaired drivers from the road and enforce speed limits and rules of the road can prevent many crashes from occurring."

This is a bit of a Humpty Dumpty moment, attempting to reframe language in an Orwellian way that justifies law enforcement solutions to a complex social problem. According to Dictionary.com, the first definition of "accident" is "an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss; casualty; mishap: automobile accidents" (emphasis in original). The point of redefining terms isn't to hew to more correct usage but to allow police to maximally assign blame to drivers, ignoring the contributions of public policy decisions, traffic engineering, unintentional distractions and pure, dumb luck. But accidents DO happen and most car crashes - even preventable ones - occur unintentionally.

Etymology aside, the NHTSA campaign views traffic enforcement in general as a vast pretext for investigating other crimes by drivers, suggesting that "Proactive enforcement of traffic violations results in numerous criminal apprehensions. More significantly, the traffic stop is perceived by the officer and the community as positive. Even though a criminal apprehension may not result during most traffic stops, the officers and the community should not only view traffic enforcement as a safety benefit, but as another tool to be used in the War on Crime." Several years ago, Grits suggested that Supreme Court decisions allowing "pretext stops" would mean that "traffic enforcement will, over time, have less and less to do with ensuring traffic safety and more with getting around the Fourth Amendment." At the NHTSA, that prediction has now become public policy.

The reference by the NHTSA to pretext stops made me think of Google's driverless car and the recent suggestion by Volvo that they will produce driverless vehicles for sale in the US by 2020. A recent New Yorker column remarked that:
Google’s driver-less cars are already street-legal in three states, California, Florida, and Nevada, and some day similar devices may not just be possible but mandatory. Eventually (though not yet) automated vehicles will be able to drive better, and more safely than you can; no drinking, no distraction, better reflexes, and better awareness (via networking) of other vehicles. Within two or three decades the difference between automated driving and human driving will be so great you may not be legally allowed to drive your own car, and even if you are allowed, it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.
When that technological shift comes - and it's coming - how will that affect law enforcement agencies that have hinged their staffing and deployment decisions on the pretext stop strategy? In 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (pdf), 59.2% of all citizen contacts with police were traffic related. That year, police conducted searches at about 5% of traffic stops nationally, discovering contraband in about one out of every 10 searches. While most drivers (84.5%) thought they were pulled over for good cause, an overwhelming majority of drivers searched, said BJS, said the search was "perceived as not legitimate." Police arrested 2.6% of drivers they stopped that year.

When police no longer have traffic enforcement as a pretext for getting around the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement in this country will lose what's become a primary crime fighting strategy. In that sense, Grits views the focus on traffic enforcement and pretext stops as an example of short-term, numbers-driven myopia. Just as fishermen fish where the fish are, law enforcement focuses on traffic enforcement not just to prevent "crashes," but also because that's the most cost-effective way to maximize arrests for other offenses, allowing police to find contraband when they otherwise would have no cause to stop, much less search average citizens. For now that makes sense if their goal is to maximize arrests. But police seeking to maximize arrests in the future may have to rely on different tactics that today they tend to downplay, like investigating and solving reported crime.

Until then, Orwellian wordplay won't change the fact that virtually all car crashes are accidents by any reasonable definition. And until the cars are driving themselves, that will continue to be the case.

NHTSA campaign logo

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

What the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Transportation previously called an "accident report" is now called a "crash report." It looks like the forms were changed in 2010.
http://www.txdot.gov/driver/laws/crash-reports.html

Gritsforbreakfast said...

From what I can tell, the logo and slogan first appeared on the NHTSA site in 2009, so that'd be about right.

Anonymous said...

Straight out of the MADD playbook.

Noteworthy that, by Texas statute, both intoxication assault and manslaughter must be committed by "accident or mistake."

jimbino said...

Not only are car crashes "accidents," but the fact is that we want accidents to happen.

Why? Because the cost of avoiding accidents is too high. We could all drive tanks, but the cost in time lost, material expended, roads destroyed and gasoline wasted would be higher than the toll exacted by a few traffic maimings and deaths.

Sad to say, but we want school children to be shot and killed, by the same logic: the alternatives of canceling education, banning weapons or arming teachers are "solutions" that are far too costly.

Anonymous said...

This is not a new idea, not even from 2009. In my former life as a Paramedic in one of the big cities, I remember hearing this reframing back in the early part of the last decade, maybe earlier. With the same Orwellian framing as a MVC, not a MVA. It was always kind of stupid in my opinion - glad to see the Austin PD and DPS catching up . . ..

Unknown said...

Grits, this is one of the very few time I have to disagree with you. As someone once said, "If you get hit by a meteor, it's an accident. Anything else is driver error."

Anonymous said...

Fascism has come to America wearing kevlar and badges while spouting "Protect and Defend" and quoting bible verses.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Unknown, I fail to see the distinction between "driver error" and an accident, if the latter is defined as "an undesirable or unfortunate happening that occurs unintentionally and usually results in harm, injury, damage, or loss." That seems to me a distinction without a difference.

doran said...

You say "Orwellian framing," I say sophistry. Same thing, and the corruption of language by law enforcement and the judiciary has been their way of emasculating the Fourth Amendment: A Terry Stop is not an arrest. A detention is not an arrest. A pat down is not a search. BS.

Now, an accident is not an accident because it was not the result of uncontrollable circumstances and could have been prevented.

So for what offense will cops start charging the drivers of vehicles involved in crashes? Assault? Assault with a deadly weapon?

I doubt that Austin PD understands what it is setting itself up for. Next time a cop car dash cam video is "accidentally" erased or "lost," what will they say? That erasure or loss could have been prevented, so it could not possibly be an accident by APD's own logic.

And what will they do when a cop "accidently" shoots a fleeing suspect? Accidental shooting? Not a chance APD. Your officers need to be indicted in those circumstances, according to your own logic.

Can't wait to see this play out.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the drug czar will say when the report on CO DUI tickets dropped 78% during New Years enforcement period this year,,,after they legalized marijuana.

Now that people can carry marijuana on them out to party they are turning away from alcohol as the New Years toast and going for the toke.

Stephanie said...

Grits, I have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. There's a big difference between accidental and intentional. While I certainly didn't intend to rear-end that nice lady on 183 last fall, the truth is, I wasn't paying attention - she stopped and I didn't. And when you drive a vehicle you need to pay attention all the time. In that regard, it wasn't an "accident," it was a crash, albeit a minor one. While that slogan may be NHTSA's latest marketing tool, my driver's ed instructor back in the dark ages said exactly the same thing. In fact, we were penalized if we used the A-word. Language is power and IMO accident minimizes outcomes and denies culpability.

doran said...

Stephanie;

Years ago I was stopped at a stop sign, with my foot pressing the brake pedal (which means the brake lights were on), waiting for the vehicle in front of me to move so I could try to turn. My vehicle was struck from behind with enough force to knock the bumper off and slam my car into the one ahead of me. The lady driving the car behind me was looking in her purse for lunch money for her child, when she ran into me.

As to her, she most definitely was not paying attention. As for me, there was nothing I could have done to prevent the collision but to have stayed in bed that morning. It was an accident of fate that put me where I was. In current terms used to describe such collisions, it was an "accident" as to me, and an avoidable "crash" maybe to the other driver.

How does it help to characterize those kinds of collisions as "crashes" or "accidents"? Both labels have developed connotations which are intended to serve a particular population. It was a collision I was in, and collisions can happen accidently.

The NHTSA and the LE lobby have simply chosen another word and are casting it with connotations which help them move toward their goal of more and more police interference with people. They could have used "collision" just as well. The point is that crashes and collisions can happen accidently. And I suspect there is very little that "proactive traffic enforcement efforts" can do to prevent very many of the collisions. The flaw in the NHTSA position is that agency's attempt to exclude accidents as a reasonable consideration when talking about vehicle collisions.

john said...

Ignoring the Transportation Code in favor of "moving violations" in the Admin Code---and why isn't that only for gov employees?, but then why do only State or municipalities own vehicles that have to be registered?--is beyond Orwellian. It is tyranny, thievery, sophistry & (bad) habit which has become tradition.
Those who achieve power seek mostly to extend it. They come to believe they have become entitled.

Anonymous said...

The distinction is a valid conceptual distinction - even if the language is a bit inexact.

The fact is, most traffic "accidents" happen because people made intentional choices that have unintended but forseeable consequences.

There is nothing accidental about chatting on a cell phone or putting makeup on during the drive to work in the morning. Is it really accurate to call the crashes that happen as a result "accidents"?

What is needed is a word to describe the unintended consequence of a deliberate, choice by a stupid person.

"Dumb-assident" comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

Data: East Texas fatal wrecks since 2007 mostly one-vehicle

http://www.news-journal.com/news/police/data-east-texas-fatal-wrecks-since-mostly-one-vehicle/article_d2615acd-3379-5a34-831d-d94ab91de1ba.html

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"There is nothing accidental about chatting on a cell phone or putting makeup on during the drive to work in the morning. Is it really accurate to call the crashes that happen as a result 'accidents?"

Given that the VAST majority of people who talk on cell phones, apply makeup in the car, etc., do not crash, the answer is definitely "yes," it's really an accident. Words have meanings and the word "accident" fits precisely in that circumstance.

If you intended to crash your car, definitely not an accident. But if that outcome was not your intent, the state pretending the word doesn't apply is truly a Humpty Dumpty moment, straight out of Lewis Caroll:

"’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’"

"’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.'”

Anonymous said...

GFB said:

"Given that the VAST majority of people who talk on cell phones, apply makeup in the car, etc., do not crash, the answer is definitely "yes," it's really an accident. Words have meanings and the word "accident" fits precisely in that circumstance."

"Accident" is a word that is commonly used by irresponsible people to avoid culpability for their choices and actions. The intent in using "accident" in describing vehiclular crashes caused by distracted driving is often to imply the "it wasn't my fault".

That is a crock, of course. And responsible people ought not to be asked to condone this usage, since it is intended to obfuscate rather than clarify.

"In 2010, 3092 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver and an estimated additional 416,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver." - NHTSA

The fact of the matter is that in each crash involving distracted driving, there was a specific driver who made a specific choice and engaged in a specific action that put himself and others at risk.

Clearly, GFB should be concerned less about the definition of "accident", and be concerned more about the concept of "irresponsibility".

Anonymous said...

GFB said...... "Is it really accurate to call the crashes that happen as a result 'accidents?"

Lets call 'em "negligents."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:18/7:36, et. al.: Have you labeled traffic engineers "irresponsible" when traditional designs contributed to crashes but they failed to adopt safer, more modern approaches? Do you hold municipalities that fail to provide public transportation responsible for the resulting increase in DWIs? How about car manufacturers who fill up the dashboard with buttons and gadgets that contribute to distractions? Or is it all on the driver, even though you appear to grant that nearly all crashes are unintentional?

The NHTSA and some anons here would pretend that only drivers contribute to accidents, crashes, collisions, or whatever Humpty Dumpty would like to call them today and that somehow writing more tickets would solve the problem. In reality, there's little evidence ticketing reduces accidents, particularly fatal ones, or Texas would have had more fatalities when the number of tickets written declined (we had less). But please, don't let facts interfere with your opinions.

Finally, y'all seem to willfully ignore NHTSA's stated desire to use traffic enforcement as a pretext to get around the Fourth Amendment. For some reason, none of these amateur, revisionist etymologists seem to care about that.

Anonymous said...

"Have you labeled traffic engineers "irresponsible" when traditional designs contributed to crashes but they failed to adopt safer, more modern approaches?"

Of course they are irresponsible.

"Do you hold municipalities that fail to provide public transportation responsible for the resulting increase in DWIs?"

Of course they are responsible.

"How about car manufacturers who fill up the dashboard with buttons and gadgets that contribute to distractions?"

Of course they are responsible.

However, it would be impossible to argue successfully that those irresponsibilities are the proximate cause of any particular crash.

Whereas driver distraction is a proximate cause of many particular crashes.

But that is obvious, isn't it.

Anonymous said...

GFB said:
"For some reason, none of these amateur, revisionist etymologists seem to care about that."

Last I checked, etymology is the study of the origins and historical development of words. But, hey, I'm just an amateur.

Anonymous said...

For me, GFB is on the wrong side of this argument. If you want to talk about the fourth amendment, then talk about that. But when you mischaracterize as "Orwellian" a beneficial attempt to get people to recognize that most accidents are the result of irresponsible actions of drivers - well, that is just plain goofy-assed.

quash said...

Excellent starting point, insightful bridge, fascinating conclusion.

Words do matter. This subtle shift is moving behavior from civil negligence into criminal responsibility.

Similar to the PR campaign to distort our drinking and driving law. In Texas it is legal to drink and drive, so long as you do so responsibly. But you'd never know that from the billboards and traffic signs: "Drink. Drive. Go to jail."

Landon Thompson, Texas Attorney said...

Everyone seems to be getting caught up in the wordplay on this issue, but that is only the surface of what's going on. This is yet another example of the bigger problem - a trend muddling the ldistinctions between civil and criminal standards, eliminating intent elements from criminal offenses, and gradually moving everything toward a strict liability system. This growing attitude that if anything bad happens it has to be someone's fault and someone has to pay only leads to scapegoating, not solutions.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Last I checked, etymology is the study of the origins and historical development of words. But, hey, I'm just an amateur"

That's right, 3:59, and you want to throw out words' historical meaning in deference to law enforcement's political agenda. What's your point?

3:43, you seem to admit that the problem has a social dimension and that crashes result from a more complex set of factors than simply individuals behaving irresponsibly. Nobody said driver error isn't a factor, only that those errors are, indeed, "accidents" by any meaningful definition of the word.

6:15 writes, "If you want to talk about the fourth amendment, then talk about that." FWIW, if you read the post, I did. You guys are the ones ignoring that aspect.

Landon/quash, excellent points. That's exactly what's going on here, but so many folks are caught up in the blame game they can't see the forest for the trees.

Anonymous said...

Landon Thompson said: "This growing attitude that if anything bad happens it has to be someone's fault and someone has to pay only leads to scapegoating, not solutions."

A truck driver swerves onto the sidewalk while texting and kills a child. And you are going to call that a "bad" thing that just happened?

Are you nuts??

Anonymous said...

I applaud NHTSA for finding ways of non-coercively encouraging people to drive more responsibly. If my experiences driving to work every morning are any indication, there is a need for this.

Ken Fountain said...

Grits, this issue is central to a story I've been covering, first as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and later on my own blog. The issue of a so-called "Zero Tolerance policy" by the BPD went to the Fifth Circuit, which ruled against the plaintiff in the lawsuit. Here's my coverage:

http://kenfountain.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/federal-appeals-court-sides-with-beaumont-in-newman-case/