Senate Bill 188: A flirtation with Orwell

A few weeks ago, Phil, my friend and co-worker, drove off the road after failing to negotiate a curve. May God rest his soul. It was an accident, and there’s no other word to describe the tragic event that took the life of a smart, active 30-year-old who savored every day.

But that word may be expunged from Nevada law. Senate Bill 188 would strike all statutory references to traffic “accidents,” and substitute the word “crash.” It’s part of an effort to change the collective mindset about public safety, according to the bill’s sponsor, Senator Mark Manendo. He cites the adoption of “crash” as preferred terminology at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

DUI Victim Advocate Sandy Heverly is a cheerleader for the language change. She says “accident” is misleading because it implies no fault.

“’Accident’ is deeply offensive,” Heverly says. It impedes recovery for the victims of drunk, reckless, or negligent drivers.

Heverly says motor vehicle crashes are “predictable and preventable events.” Her claim is questionable as a general premise. Many collisions are preventable, but accidents by definition are not predictable. Nonetheless, SB188 got a unanimous thumbs-up on the floor of the Nevada Senate, and  has proceeded to the other house.

In this week’s Assembly Transportation Committee hearing, it was only insurance lobbyists who commented. They’d been blindsided by the bill, even though it’s insurers who are most interested in sorting out blame after an accident. For students of political wordsmithing, these are authentic stakeholders. They ventured that SB188 could create an expensive and time-consuming challenge for insurers. All business forms and customer contracts would have to be re-written to eliminate the offending word.

Why is the legislature, which frequently complains that 120 days is insufficient to accomplish the people’s business, engaged in this Orwellian exercise? Beyond supporting the magical notion that scrubbing a word from the state’s official language will improve road safety, it’s anybody’s guess. So let’s guess.

Perhaps SB 188 paves the way for driverless cars. Nevada wants to be on technology’s bleeding edge, you should pardon the expression. If human drivers cause “accidents,” but robotic vehicles “crash,” maybe we’re preparing for the day when juries will consider algorithms rather than human intent.

Is SB188 intended to devalue human reasoning? If it’s always a crash, and never an accident, everyone has less discretion, from the first investigator on the scene to the judge who hands down fines and sentences. This empowers prosecutors and the trial bar, and why shouldn’t we openly discuss that?

Can the SB188 concept be extended to all areas of life where legal liability exists? Recall the Florida man who recently shot a friend in the head while stupidly twirling his handgun as if he were the star of a cowboy movie. Yes, every unintended shooting is preventable, but they’re all accidents.

And what’s this about reprogramming our thinking? Who made NTHSA the arbiter of proper thought? Who gave DUI victims the right to universally apply language that soothes their anger and pain? You’re entitled to your own beliefs about why things happen, but please, stay out of my head. Some of us believe tragedy compels contemplation of God, fate, karma, or synchronicity, not parsing of language.

If public brainwashing could reduce traffic accidents – accidents! – Nevada would have the safest roads on the planet. How many public safety campaigns have we, the media, covered? How many words urging cautious driving have been written, broadcast, and posted on billboards? How many tearful victims have told their stories in classrooms, courtrooms, and newscasts?

Victim advocates are offended by the word “accident.” Perhaps a certain forgivable myopia afflicts those who spend all their working hours with victims. But it’s also grossly disrespectful —  and, by the way, it’s patently false to assert that there’s no such thing as an accident.

I don’t know what my friend Phil did in his final moments behind the wheel. He was headed into a familiar turn on a road he’d driven hundreds of times. Did he feel suddenly light-headed? Did he see an animal in the road? Did the vehicle malfunction? Was he distracted by the radio or the phone? Was he just anxious to get there? I don’t know, and since he took nobody with him, it doesn’t really matter. But I can virtually assure you that Phil didn’t intend to die on the way to one of his favorite weekend destinations. In anybody’s book, that’s an accident.