Aug 102014 11 Responses

Tony Stewart Did Not Kill Anyone

Nearly every headline reads the same, “Tony Stewart Hits, Kills Driver.” It’s provocative. It’s attention grabbing. And it’s false.

The headline may be smart in today’s click-thirsty culture, but it’s reckless journalism and it must stop.

In a tragic accident, dirt-track driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed when he was hit by a car driven by Tony Stewart.

Ward died, but Stewart didn’t kill him. The car killed him. The impact of the crash killed him. The coroner will be able to give in excruciating detail what killed him. But Stewart didn’t kill him. (See: No Words Are Perfect)

Language matters. While we loosely throw around words without any understanding of consequences, our words have a lasting impact. To take a tragic accident and place total blame on one person is neither wise nor useful. It’s damaging to everyone involved.

This isn’t to say Stewart is completely innocent. Over the next few weeks, investigators will have to understand every detail of the situation. It is very possible that Stewart’s actions may have contributed to Ward’s death and it is possible Stewart should face criminal charges. More than likely, the details will lead to a tough judgment call by the prosecutor and District Attorney. It is doubtful Stewart took any deliberate action which led to Ward’s death. It is possible Stewart made some reckless choices which led to the accident. Clearly by exiting the car and putting himself in danger, Ward made some poor choices which allowed the accident. However, Ward’s actions were not that different from many other drivers over the past few decades.

In all probability, the death was simply an accident.

However, whether Stewart is culpable or not, the fact remains—Tony Stewart did not kill anyone.

Unless prosecutors unearth facts which show an evil intention to purposely run over Ward, Stewart didn’t kill him. While Stewart is accountable for his decisions and actions, those actions led to an accident, not a murder. (See: A Forgotten Sign of Adulthood)

If we aren’t careful, we can add unnecessary grief to Stewart by poorly choosing how we describe the accident. If I were Stewart’s pastor, I would refuse to allow him to say, “I killed him.” I would continually correct the language by Stewart or anyone. “The car killed him.” “The accident killed him.” “A broken neck killed him.” I would tell Stewart, “you did not kill him.”

Most airline accidents are caused by pilot error, but we do not routinely say, “the pilot killed the passengers.”

In every fatal car accident, someone made a mistake, but we rarely say “one driver killed the other.”

With previous on track deaths, we have not said one driver killed the other.

We always say it was an accident. Unless there is more evidence then what we have seen, this was an accident.

Our words matter and the more tense a situation, the more important our words. Report the story, but report it accurately. Tony Stewart did not kill Kevin Ward Jr.

For more, see:

Use Hard Words Not Harsh Words

Top Ten Communication Posts Your Co-workers Should Read

11 Responses to Tony Stewart Did Not Kill Anyone
  1. Mike Reply

    I don’t understand your logic at all. So if I pull the trigger of a gun and shoot someone to death, I didn’t kill that person, the gun did – whether intentional or not? Your examples are hard to believe. The gangbanger didn’t kill your son, the ruptured aorta killed him (caused by a bullet fired by the gangbanger). A car is a dangerous weapon, just as is a gun or a knife. Use it recklessly and people will get hurt, or die. And when that happens, the person operating the equipment is the one that is culpable. Tony Stewart killed another race car driver with his car. We’ll likely never know what his intention was, and in all likelihood it will be ruled accidental (although I highly doubt that’s actually the case), but there is no other way to frame it. The car did not run over the other driver by itself. That’s the only way I could frame it as the car killed him.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Mike, I don’t like the gun analogy because it is a weapon used to kill and is rarely out of human control. A car, however, is not meant to kill and can be out of our control. For example, when there is a normal wreck in a race and a driver dies, we do not say the other driver killed him. When a wreck occurred and a tire went into the crowd killing spectators, we do not say the driver killed them. We say the tire killed them. Until we see evidence beyond what we have, this looks like a tragic accident. I would actually argue that the greatest culprit of this event is the culture of drivers exiting their vehicles and going after other drivers who are still racing. That culture allowed this to happen.

  2. caleab Reply

    Kevin, I am not a fan of Tony Stewart, so I have no axe to grind here. Although I am a fan of all kinds of racing, I don’t particularly pay attention to Sprint Car racing, though it looks extremely exciting and I have seen them live. With that said, your blog is insightful, lucid, and intelligent. I wish more people approached this awful tragedy with the same calm, sound, logical sensibility that you do.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Thank you for reading and for the kind comments. “Insightful, lucid, and intelligent” is a high bar I will try to chase.

  3. Barbara Reply

    If the driver hadn’t gotten out of his car because he was MAD, he would never have been hit. He was storming across what could only be described as a highspeed freeway, with no reverence for his own life OR the lives of the drivers on the track.

    • Scholastic 1 Reply

      The caution flag on a small dirt track is in no way comparable to a free way. Small tracks are all I’ve ever driven. What you said just isn’t true.

  4. Jerry Reply

    http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/11/opinion/callan-tony-stewart-kevin-ward-race-car-death/index.html?hpt=op_t1
    Here is a nuanced article on the subject that is “insightful, lucid and intelligent…” as opposed to oversimplified, conclusory and just a tad prideful and attention seeking… Not expecting you to post it but think you should check your motives both for writing and defending your misunderstanding of the word “kill…” Your full throated defense of your position is pride of authorship to a fault…

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Jerry, I do not mind disagreement, critique, or debate. All of that is fair game and, to me, a fun part of discussion. I do, however, dislike personal attacks. Since we have never met, we cannot judge one anothers motives or heart. I haven’t defended anything about the word “kill.” I agree the driver was killed. I am not willing to say Stewart killed him. That is our disagreement. Which is fine. Anyone can disagree. I don’t even agree with myself half the time. Thank you for reading and commenting, but please keep the comments to simply sharing what you think about the issue and leave personal attacks out of the discussion. I’ll let my friends judge my heart; you simply get to judge my ideas.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Jerry, what I appreciate about the article is that the highlights say, “Stewart’s car hit and killed Ward.” That is the very point I’ve been trying to make. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Pat Reply

    Looks like your trying to get a little too deep with this. Cars kill more people in an average day than guns do in the US. Everyone in their right mind know that cars kill people. It doesn’t matter what their made for. The driver of a car that runs over somebody on purpose or not is irrelevant. He was in control of the car. The car wouldn’t have run over anyone without a driver. Most likely he wasn’t trying to kill him but he was sure as hell trying at the very least to scare him. That’s why there is voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Your argument holds no water better luck next time!

  6. Jerry Reply

    Kevin, I appreciate your response. What I am getting at is that you insist on repeatedly presuming that you know for absolute certain that “Stewart did not kill anyone” and you’ve offered no reasonable basis for your conclusion. The definition of “kill” is to “cause the death of…” If you’re trying to be provocative by arguing that Stewart did not cause Ward’s death then you’ve succeeded. But, it is an absurd suggestion, and, based on your other posts, you know far better than that. Stewart clearly and obviously caused Ward’s death whether accidentally, unknowingly, negligently, recklessly or intentionally. Ward obviously contributed to his death by his own reckless behavior. You’re calling out the media for being “reckless” and “click thirsty”…I am calling you out for the exact same thing. I would love for you to show the humility to admit that maybe your own headline is overstated and doesn’t reflect the nuances that you’re striving to convey. Absent that, the only other plausible conclusion is…well…ask your friends…

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