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It's No Accident: Why We Say 'Wreck'

accident wreck

For years – no, decades – when one vehicle hit another, or a tree, or just ran off the road, we told our listeners there was an "accident." Then a few years ago, we started to get complaints from people who said nothing is an accident – run off the road? Maybe you were driving too fast for the conditions. Hit another car? Maybe you were following too closely.  You get the idea. 

However, I fought the calls to change. It's the vernacular – when we say there's an accident, everybody knows what we mean.

But the emails and phone calls continued and I gave in, sort of.  The suggested substitute was "crash." But when I heard crash (already being used on other stations) all I could think of was the old Batman TV show with Adam West, where when somebody got punched, the cartoon words "Crash!"  "Pow!" "Bang!" appeared on the screen.

Credit adam west batman / Mark Elias
Mark Elias
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin at a custom car show in Chicago in 1989.

So, we brainstormed in the newsroom and came up with "wreck." I thought that would be the end of it. But we still got complaints – lots of complaints. One woman left a voicemail saying – and I'm paraphrasing here – it would make women feel bad because they might describe themselves that way if they were having a bad hair day (as in "my hair's a wreck").  She was concerned it was unkind to people involved in an accident to brush it off as "just a wreck" when there was actually an accident.

Another listener told us it makes announcers sound "uneducated," and suggested using "accident," "mishap," or "pile up" instead.

Then this was in my inbox a couple weeks ago:

"I am curious as to why every traffic incident without exception is called a 'wreck' by the station announcers. It makes Cincinnati sound like a gigantic junkyard. There are plenty of other terms that could be used, e.g. accident, fender bender, collision. The term 'wreck' as used implies that every incident is a major catastrophe with extended damage and an unknown number of vehicles involved. Can you PLEASE soften the rhetoric and make the announcement correspond to what actually transpired?"

Let me point out we have a traffic service. Sometimes it gives us details like "it’s a jack-knifed semi," or "it's a disabled vehicle." (Which is also problematic. We've used it in the past and gotten feedback that it was offensive to people who are physically or mentally disabled so now we say "broken down vehicle.") But rest assured, whenever we have info, we share it with listeners.  But most of the time, we don't know exactly what happened, just that there's a problem. So, we call it a wreck.

And that, is why we say what we say.

We know we'll never make everyone happy. But still, we appreciate hearing your thoughts on the matter – clearly our listeners value their traffic reports! And if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that we are thrilled you're paying close attention to what we say and we love knowing we provide value to to you – even if you take issue with it.

If you'd like to contact me about this or anything else, email me.

This article was first published Feb. 26. 

Maryanne Zeleznik is responsible for all news and public affairs programming at WVXU. She also hosts Morning Edition Monday through Friday.