Monthly Archives: August 2022

Human accident fallacy

Some years ago, when I was working as a regulatory consultant to VicRoads, they asked me to use the term “road crash” rather than “road accident”. They pointed out that an accident is defined as an unintended event not directly caused by humans.

Vehicle collisions are not usually accidents; they are mostly caused by preventable behaviours such as drunk or careless driving, or intentionally driving too fast. Vehicle collisions invariably have a human cause, so the use of the term “accident” is misleading in this context.

The use of the word accident to describe car crashes was promoted by the US National Automobile Chamber of Commerce in the middle of the 20th century, as a way to make vehicle-related deaths and injuries seem like an unavoidable matter of fate, rather than a problem that could be addressed. The automobile industry accomplished this by writing customised articles as a free service for newspapers that used the industry’s preferred language. These articles were deliberately fallacious.

For this reason, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has since 1994 asked media and the public not to use the word accident to describe vehicle collisions.  Similarly, the Australian National Road Safety Strategy 2021–30, endorsed by the responsible Federal and State Ministers, uses the term “road crash” rather than “road accident”. More widely, health and safety professionals generally prefer using the term “incident” in place of the term “accident”.

Confusingly, the common current meaning of the English word “accident” has almost nothing to do with Aristotle’s philosophical concept of the “fallacy of accident”, which was one of the thirteen fallacies that Aristotle discussed in his book On Sophistical Refutations. Aristotle’s accident fallacy is difficult to explain here, but doesn’t have anything to do with car crashes or people slipping on banana peels.


Filed under Logical fallacies