After years of debates and calls from road safety practitioners, the use of the word ‘accident’ is being dropped in connection to road safety incidents.

National Highways is being urged to stop using the word on roadside messaging. It implies collisions are unavoidable, and risks obscuring accountability for death and injury on the roads.

Changing perspectives

The Department for Transport (DfT) recently announced it would no longer use ‘accident’ in some publications. This decision came after feedback from affected families and transport professionals.

Despite the announcement of changes, the word remains in use in legislation. The DfT argues that it is ‘well-established and familiar to drivers’, and prescribed in signage guidance.

The AA, RoadPeace, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) and the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) are among those calling on National Highways to use ‘collision’ instead.

Edmund King, AA president, said: “Road deaths have plateaued in the UK and the fact that we see almost five deaths each day is an absolute tragedy.

“We must use everything we can to reduce this carnage. Most crashes are not ‘accidents’ but are avoidable, normally by drivers and other road users paying more attention.

“Describing every crash as an ‘accident’ in effect makes excuses for serious incidents.”

Mixed messages

When an incident takes place, digital variable message signs (VMS) will display speed restrictions, lane closures, and sometimes the cause of disruption – including ‘accident’. These are managed as part of the national road network by National Highways.

It defends its use saying that it is commonly understood by drivers, and because it reflects roadside signage such as ‘Police Accident’.

The UK’s road signage manual, known as Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD), prescribes using ‘accident’. However, National Highways admits it is possible to seek special authorisation to display ‘collision’ instead.

Detective Chief Superintendent Andy Cox is the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for fatal collisions. He points out collisions are often a result of drivers’ actions, not accidents.

Recent changes to how collisions’ contributory factors are recorded, evidence this. They show that more than a third of the UK’s 1,700 annual fatal collisions are related to drivers speeding, and a quarter to drink and drug driving. This is much higher than previously thought.


“Words matter,” says Cox. He explains that they “are integral to changing culture and reducing road danger. Therefore, we must stop using the word ‘accident’ when describing crashes”.

“This word [accident] implies it was just one of those things, it couldn’t be helped, or it was just bad luck.

“Instead, so often crashes are about a driver’s choice to be selfish, dangerous or reckless and as such we should describe it as a collision or crash. This allows for the public perception to appropriately consider driver choice and error.”

Changing norms

Nick Simmons is CEO of RoadPeace, the national charity for road crash victims. He says that while collisions are commonly called accidents, it’s “something we’ve always done…that doesn’t mean we have to continue to use this language”.

“The majority of road crashes are preventable,” he added. “By continuing to use the word ‘accident’ we continue to normalise road crashes as inevitable occurrences.

“Changing language is vital to changing attitudes”.

Jamie Hassall, executive director at PACTS, agrees. If the UK is to become a world leader in road safety then “getting the language right is one of the corner stones”.

Hassall wants to see “strong leadership”, and the UK “setting the example for others to follow”.

“When it comes to Road Safety, we need to get it right and the experts agree that the use of ‘accident’ removes accountability for what happed and should not be used,” he added.

Under review

National Highways says it will now undertake new research with customers on their preferences around signage wording.

“National Highways recognises the importance of language,” says a spokesperson for the agency.

“We always want to ensure we are taking into account the views of all road users, so we will undertake new research with our customers to test their understanding and preferences on language to be used in this situation.”