As a professional writer, I pay close attention to the words I use to convey information and express thoughts.
Hence, I took an interest in a recent discussion on a railfan chat list in the wake of an incident in which an Amtrak train struck a backhoe 15 miles south of Philadelphia.
Two Amtrak maintenance-of-way workers were killed and 30 passengers aboard the train suffered minor injuries.
The online discussion focused, in part, on the use of the word “accident” to describe what happened.
A poster in the thread asserted that because events such as the one in which the train struck the backhoe are preventable many in the railroad and regulatory fields now call them collisions or crashes rather than accidents.
That’s because the word “accident” suggests that no one was at fault.
If the two construction workers had been killed after being struck by a meteor, that would be an accident because no rules were violated and, hence, no one was at fault. It would have been the proverbial act of God.
The poster was correct that the incident involving the backhoe was preventable. A piece of construction equipment doesn’t just happen to find its way onto a railroad track over which trains are operating at better than 100 miles per hour.
Someone made a mistake. A rule was violated and it is often said that every rule in every rule book of every railroad is written in blood.
But does that meant that if a rules violation leads to injury or death that it is not an accident, but a collision, a crash, or even an incident?
I would describe it as an accident because the event was unintentional.
The operator of the backhoe did not go to work intending to be struck and killed by a train.
The engineer of the train did not go to work intending to strike a piece of construction equipment and kill someone.
The passengers didn’t board the train intending to suffer personal injury.
It will be several months before the National Transportation Safety Board issues a final report that will specify which rule or rules were violated by whom and how.
Once the NTSB report is released, there may be some discussion about the adequacy of the rules and/or how they are practiced. Some might call for a revision of the rules in the name of safer practices.
In the meantime, the Federal Railroad Administration has ordered Amtrak to review its safety practices and retrain its workers.
All of this is oriented toward creating and maintaining an environment in which there are zero injuries and fatalities.
That is unlikely to occur so long as that environment involves humans because people are subject to such things as forgetfulness, lack of knowledge of the rules and procedures, lack of skill in following the rules and procedures, and engaging in poor judgment.
The business of assessing fault has consequences that transcend what caused the incident and what rule(s) were violated by whom.
Jobs might be lost, careers destroyed and thousands, if not millions, of dollars must be paid to repair damaged equipment and property, not to mention paying the medical costs for making the injured whole again.
Someone has to pay for those costs and the determination of who is fault goes a long way toward identifying who those people and companies will be.
In that context, whether the event is framed as an “accident” or a “crash” could be important in how that determination is ultimately made.
Such frames guide how people, including judges and juries in a court of law, think about what occurred and make decisions as to who owes what and how much to whom.
On the surface, the words used to describe an event might seem to be a trivial matter.
Arguably, “accident,” “crash” and “collision” all accurately describe the same thing.
Yet there can be subtle differences in how the meanings of those words are perceived and that might make a significant difference in sorting out the aftermath.