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Getting rid of 'accidents'

FARGO-- "There's been an accident."

It's a phrase that provokes fear, anxiety and heartbreak, all at once. And it's one that safety officials in North Dakota and Minnesota would rather not hear at all, not only because of its implications, but also because it isn't accurate, they say.

"You say accident, you make it sound like it's something that couldn't have been stopped," said Kevin Gutknecht, communications director with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "And if you follow along with the idea of 'accident' and it can't be helped, what that means is when car accidents occur, there's no way it could have been avoided. And that's not true."

MnDOT, the North Dakota Department of Transportation, the North Dakota Highway Patrol and the Minnesota State Patrol don't have official policies banning the term "accident," but they are intentional about avoiding it in their materials.

This is in line with a growing national campaign against the word, which advocates say diverts responsibility from the driver, despite the fact that most crashes are preventable.

"It's a mindset that we've adopted, and we all work under that philosophy," said Kristine Hernandez, Minnesota coordinator for Toward Zero Deaths, a multi-department traffic safety program. "If it's not preventable, why would we even bother trying to do our jobs?"

Choices, not chance

An estimated 93 percent of all crashes are the result of driver behavior, Hernandez said.

"Very few of them are because of your vehicle or weather," she said. "Most of them are because of the poor choices someone makes, whether it's driving distracted or drinking alcohol, not wearing a seat belt, speeding."

In 2015, 44 percent of North Dakota's motor vehicle deaths were alcohol-related and 71 percent were not wearing a seat belt.

"Drinking alcohol and getting behind a vehicle isn't an accident, because it's 100 percent preventable," said Ashlee Doan, safety public information specialist with the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

Doan likes to point out that no one calls a plane crash a "plane accident." For at least 15 years, her department has used "car crash," as has the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

"Crashes happen for, you know, reasons," said Capt. Bryan Niewind with the Highway Patrol. "They're not an unintentional act that happens. There might be no intention of getting in a crash, but there are specific things that people are doing that cause crashes."

Niewind has been working for the Highway Patrol for 16 years and said the agency has used "crash" as long as he can remember. Every once in awhile, he will encounter a genuine "accident": a tire that fell off, or a mechanical problem. But not often.

For Niewind, it's a matter of using the proper terminology, but advocates say that changing the language also has the power to educate drivers and help victims.

'Every little bit helps'

Several internal changes in Minnesota have reflected this shift in thinking.

The Minnesota accident reporting system recently became the Minnesota crash reporting system, Hernandez said.

And in 2014, the word "accident" was changed to "collision" throughout Minnesota's hit-and-run statute, though it couldn't be changed everywhere because then it would conflict with legislation elsewhere, said Nancy Johnson, who lobbied for the change.

Johnson thinks it's more important to do away with the word in the media and in everyday conversations.

Johnson, 72, knows the consequences of irresponsible driving. Her 18-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver 33 years ago. She's been volunteering in the traffic safety community ever since, and she sees distracted driving as the new alcohol.

"It's going to take a lot of years for people to believe that distracted driving is not an accident," she said. "But that's what people don't want to address, because they all do it. And they used to all drink and drive."

Could shifting the way we talk about car crashes really reduce the death toll?

"Every little bit helps," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, director of Minnesotans for Safe Driving. She is passionately opposed to the word "accident."

"As a victim advocate, I'm extremely bothered by it," she said.

For Gehrman-Driscoll, it's mostly about the family members.

"You hear victim after victim after victim say to you, 'Oh my God, he was drunk, he was on drugs,' or she was. 'Why are they calling it an accident? My son would be alive if they hadn't have been under the influence,' " she said. "And when you hear that enough, you get it."