TREND 13.1 Crash vs. Accident: An Important Distinction

Nevada Traffic Research & Education Newsletter
JANUARY 26, 2024 // VOL. 13, ISSUE 01

Crash vs. Accident: An Important Distinction

By: Noehealani Antolin, MPH; Ana Reyes, MS; Merika Charupoom, BSPH; Nicole Bacani; Kavita Batra, PhD, MPH, BDS, Bertille Mavegam Tango, MD, PhD; Deborah Kuhls, MD

Image: Word art saying "crashes are not accidents."

Word choice matters as the language we use influences our perceptions and behaviors [1]. If our word choice downplays an issue, we may not take the issue as seriously as we should. An illustrative example of this impact is the distinction between “crashes” and “accidents.” A “crash” is defined as “a breaking to pieces by or as if by collision; to break violently and noisily,” whereas “accidents” are defined as “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance”[2]. If these two terms are used to refer to the same event, they evoke very different images [3]. The use of the term “accident,” in the context of traffic crashes, suggests that all of these incidents are beyond our human influence and control [4,5]. Yet, research studies show that many crashes result from human behaviors (e.g., speeding, distracted driving, etc.) and other human controllable factors [6, 7, 8]. It is essential to acknowledge the difference between “accidents” and “crashes” to emphasize that traffic incidents are not solely unpredictable events but are avoidable consequences resulting from specific human behaviors and choices. To establish this shift in perspective between “crashes” and “accidents,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) initiated the Crashes Aren’t Accidents campaign in 1997. This campaign aimed to eliminate the word “accident” from the domain of unintentional injury on our local and interstate highways nationwide [9].

Taking a proactive stance, Nevada implemented Senate Bill 188 on January 1, 2016, replacing “accident” with “crash” in state laws covering police and insurance reports [10]. Many traffic safety advocates are pushing to educate the public that “crashes” are not mere “accidents.” For instance, a child who is hit and killed by a driver who is impaired and traveling at excessive speeds above the legally posted limit. Would you consider this an accident? Calling a tragic incident an “accident” when it was preventable undermines the tragedies and directly impacts victims’ families. Dr. Deborah Kuhls, a trauma surgeon, Chief of Trauma at University Medical Center of Southern Nevada and Associate Dean of Research at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, states, “It’s really important that we change our language … these are not accidents and that there is human behavior involved in more than half of traffic crashes in Nevada” [11]. Words impact us, as they may significantly influence our thoughts and actions. By favoring language emphasizing responsibility and prevention, we encourage a culture that prioritizes safety and which actively works to reduce the likelihood of these tragic events.. In Nevada, from 2018 to 2021 more than half of the non-adjudicated citations issued by law enforcement officers were related to risky driving behaviors and many were involved in a crash.

Word art saying "crash or accident?"
Word art saying "crashes are preventable."

Overview of Nevada Non-Adjudicated Citations 2018-2021 Data Key Findings

Over the last two years, the Traffic Safety Research team has analyzed non-adjudicated (i.e., not resolved in a legal ruling or judgment) traffic citation data from Nevada spanning 2018-2021 (N=1,425,762). Figure 1 shows the total number of citations which resulted from driving behaviors (i.e., speeding, violation of traffic control devices, imprudent or improper driving, distracted driving, and child passenger safety violations). Overall, speed-related citations were the most common of all citations issued (n= 759,338, 53.3%) [12], followed by traffic control device violations (n= 90,570, 6.4%) [13], distracted driving (n=72,797, 5%) [14], imprudent or improper driving (n=38,172, 2.7%), [15], child passenger safety (n=2,265, 0.16%) [16], and other non-traffic related citations (n=462,621, 32.4%).

Bar graph of Nevada Non-adjudicated citations from 2018-2021 based on citation type.
Figure 1. Overview of Nevada Non-adjudicated Traffic Citations from 2018-2021 (N=1,425,762)
Driving at a speed more significant than the legal limit
Traffic control device (TCD)
Red light violations, stop sign violations, general disobedience to TCD, right turn on red violations, yieldsign violations, and avoiding red light violations
Imprudent or improper driving
Failure to use due care, careless driving, reckless driving, impeding traffic, and aggressive driving
Distracted driving
Illegal cell phone device usage, other handheld device use violations, drivers illegally viewing a TV receiver, and inattentive driving
Child passenger safety
Failure to use proper child restraint system
Non-related traffic related citations (e.g., curfew violation, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, trespassing, etc.)

Table 1 shows the total number of citations issued by type of driving behavior and the counts/proportions of crashes associated with these behaviors. Approximately 2.3% of speeding citations were associated with crashes, whereas nearly 70% of imprudent or improper driving citations were associated in a motor vehicle crash. Nearly, 7.4% of distracted driving citations were associated with crashes, whereas 19% of traffic control device citations were associated with crashes. Approximately six out of 100 citations related to child passenger safety were involved in a crash.

Table 1: Total Number of Driving Behavior-related Citations by Type and Crash Association
Citation Type (N) Crash (n, %)
Imprudent or Improper Driving (38,172) 26,929 (70)
Traffic Control Device Violations (90,570) 17,250 (19)
Distracted Driving (72,797) 5,421 (7.4)
Child Passenger Safety (2,265) 131 (6)
Speeding (759,338) 17,578 (2.3)
N = the total number of citations
n = total number of crashes

What emerges from this data is the importance of public and policy maker education on behavior change, emphasizing drivers making responsible choices on the road to keep everyone safe and prevent motor vehicle crashes. Understanding demographic trends, citation distribution, and crash associations can also help inform public health interventions and policy decisions. This population-oriented approach has the potential to reduce preventable injuries.

Data was received from the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety, and this research was made possible by a grant from the Nevada Office of Traffic Safety #TS-2023-UNLV- 00077.


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  2. Definition of ACCIDENT. Published December 21, 2023. Accessed December 8, 2023.
  3. Lightner C. Word Choice Matters: Crash vs. Accident. We Save Lives. Published January 10, 2024. Accessed January 12, 2024.
  4. Stewart AE, Lord JH. Motor vehicle crash versus accident: a change in terminology is necessary. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2002;15(4):333-335. doi:
  5. “Crash” Does Not Presume Innocence or Guilt. Accident = “It Wasn’t My Fault.”Accessed December 8, 2024.
  6. Dingus TA, Guo F, Lee S, et al. Driver crash risk factors and prevalence evaluation using naturalistic driving data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016;113(10):2636- 2641. doi:
  7. Khattak AJ, Ahmad N, Wali B, Dumbaugh E. A taxonomy of driving errors and violations: Evidence from the naturalistic driving study. Accident Analysis & Prevention. 2021;151:105873. doi:
  8. Singh S. Ritical Reasons for Crashes Investigated in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 2018. Accessed December 8, 2023.
  9. NHTSA Now — Volume 3, No. 11, August 11, 1997. Published October 29, 2004. Accessed January 2, 2024. saNow/Archive/1997/v3.11/
  10. S.B. 188 – SB188 SENATE BILL NO. 188-SENATOR MANENDO.; 2015. Accessed December 8, 2024.
  11. “Not accidents”: Experts weigh in on driver allowed to continue after speeding. Las Vegas Review-Journal. Published December 22, 2023. Accessed December 26, 2023. allowed-to-continue-after-speeding-2969837/
  12. TREND 12.1_NV Non-Adjudicated Speeding Citations.pdf. Google Docs. Accessed December 8, 2023.
  13. TREND 11.3_NV Traffic Control Device Violation Citations 2018-2021. Google Docs. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  14. TREND 11.2_Nevada Distracted Driving Citations 2018-2021. Google Docs. Accessed January 2, 2024.
  15. TREND 12.2 Revised[2]_Nevada Non-adjudicated Driving Behavior Citatations.pdf. Google Docs. Accessed December 8, 2023.
  16. TREND 11.4_NV CPS Violation Citations 2015-2021. Google Docs. Accessed December 8, 2023.


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