A recent conversation with Trooper Mike Kindhart, the safety education officer for the Illinois State Police in Pittsfield, was very interesting. It was a Thursday night in mid-December, and icy conditions were creating traffic headaches throughout the region.
Since I was writing a weather story that night, I called several law enforcement sources to get their take on the situation.
As usual, Kindhart was extremely cordial and helpful. He told me about the "black ice" conditions that were making area highways particularly dangerous that night. He also was kind enough to answer my question about how many accidents had been reported on roads patrolled by District 20. Luckily, there hadn't been many.
As we were ending our conversation, Kindhart said he wanted to note for the record that the ISP is getting away from using the term "accidents" when referring to routine collisions, roll-overs and other motor vehicle mishaps investigated by the agency.
"We are definitely calling things ‘crashes' any more," he said.
Kindhart said the term "accident" simply doesn't apply in many cases.
"There's a reason that some of those things happen. And usually in weather like this, it's ‘too fast for conditions,' " he said. "Those types of things are just not accidents. It's because of driver error, and that's the mindset we're trying to change."
Kindhart makes a good point. Us old-timers in the news business were trained to seek out "accident reports" for potential news stories, but upon reflection, it's understandable why the ISP -- and many other police agencies, for that matter -- is moving away from the term.
My dictionary defines an accident as "something occurring unexpectedly or unintentionally." So it's understandable if police are inclined to think someone speeding recklessly or impaired or distracted on an ice-covered road is likely to end up in a ditch -- an outcome that's more to be "expected" than "unexpected."
A true accident is something that happens without the driver's fault. For example, if a motorist is coasting along doing everything right and a tire suddenly blows out, causing him to lose control and crash, that could reasonably be labeled an accident.
If Joe Schmoe is speeding recklessly and veers off the road, smacking the front end of his car into a sturdy tree, it would be tough to characterize that as an "accident." It would certainly be accurate to call it a crash. A rather loud crash, in fact.
Since talking with Kindhart, I've noticed other police agencies are making the same distinction. The Quincy Police Department, for example, routinely sends local news media outlets a listing of "crash reports" investigated by the department. The details of each incident are logged on a document called an "Illinois Traffic Crash Report."
Susan Vahlkamp, records supervisor for the QPD, said she's been using the word "crash" instead of "accident" for a couple of years.
"That's how I always refer to them now," she said. "I started using ‘crash report' in my own terminology when we switched to using the company iyeTEK for our reports."
iveTEK makes software to help police officers log crash reports in the field. Vahlkamp said she has noticed a growing trend among police agencies to use the word "crash."
After all, she noted, if a motorist going 30 mph above the speed limit suddenly loses control and clobbers another vehicle or immovable object, that really shouldn't be considered an accident.
"There's going to be a consequence" from the motorist's reckless driving, she said.
And there's no doubt how that consequence can be described.
"It's a crash," she said.