Can We Stop Calling Bicycle Collisions, Accidents in the Press?

Video Transcription:

Jim Dodson: Hi, it's Jim Dodson, The Florida Bike Guy. So can we please stop calling them accidents?

I had an occasion over the weekend to see news reports about a terrible crash that occurred down on Gulf Boulevard in Madeira Beach. This is an area that I ride frequently, follows the beaches. Very unique intersection, however. Because the cyclists in in this particular collision, according to the press reports, was heading northbound in the bike lane, okay? Right where she needed to be. But when you go northbound in that location, you're coming down from the causeway bridge that goes over what we call John's Pass. Well, obviously, you're accelerating even if you just coast. So easily the cyclist is going in the 20s coming down this bridge. At this base of this a bridge is a street that cuts across from west side of the road to the right side of the road right at the bottom of this bridge. And from these press reports, first off they call it an accident with a garbage truck and a bicyclist. Okay? They indicate that the driver or the garbage truck was trying, essentially, from what I get from the article, cross Gulf Boulevard from the cyclist's left to the cyclist's right. There's a slight jog as this person. It's not a straight T-intersection. The driver of the garbage drug has to slightly veer northward in order to kind of get over to where they wanna go, according to how they described the driver was driving. They point out that the cyclist was in the bike lane, approaching this street at the bottom of the bridge and that the bicyclist was unable to stop at the base of this hill after crossing the bridge.

So what does that language say when the cyclist is unable to stop? Sounds as though the cyclist might have done something wrong from the framing of the crash. Then it goes on to say that the cyclist struck the passenger side of the garbage truck. So how does the passenger side of a garbage truck get on the bike lane in front of the cyclist other than the driver of the truck cut the cyclist off? It's the only way that could happen. However, when you read this article, you would never get that impression. It's a very simple, you go to a Google Earth, which I did. I've been there personally. I went to Google Earth to look at it again just to make sure my recollection was correct, and it's pretty obvious how this crash must've occurred based on what I'm reading from the press accounts.The point of my beef about this is number one, they refer to it as an accident, and number two, they don't attribute any wrongdoing to the driver when in fact that's the only way the crash could've occurred. And in fact, they negatively attribute something to the bicyclist, indicating that the cyclist somehow couldn't have stopped, as though the cyclist had a responsibility to avoid this crash by stopping coming down a hill when someone cuts them off at the base of a bridge, which is, in my view, ridiculous.

So I wanna chat just a little bit about this whole thing about the press reports, which generally default to using the word accident when referring to a collision between a bicycle and a vehicle. So when the writer of any article, any press report whether it's print or broadcast, the use of words matters. Words like collateral damage, in a war report, sounds much better than civilian deaths. A military intervention sounds much less harsh than war or a battle. I go back to the fact that when you're potty training a three year old or puppy, they have accidents. When a bicycle and a car collide, that's not an accident, because what happens is that planes crash, bridges collapse, but traffic collisions are preventable, and they are the result of driver error and infrastructure design. Those are usually the two major components of any crash. The problem, as you and I well know, is that the use of the word accident equals, well, it just happened, and there’s no one to blame. Accident means no one was responsible. Accident paints over this whole epidemic of bike crashes and bicycle fatalities with the broad brush of well, accidents occur. They're just a part of life, and we need to accept these things. That's the way things happen. And these cyclists put themselves in a position where accidents occur. And that's my real concern about this entire use of this word accident. And it's so baked into our grammar. I mean quite frankly, when you look on the internet, the word accident is much more used than is the word collision, when you look through press accounts, and study after study has found this to be true, the most prevalent use of the word between a bicycle and a car, bicycle and a truck, is accident. It's not collision or crash.

So if you go back upstream from virtually every bicycle collision, every bicycle crash where there's an injury. At the end of the stream, when you look upstream, it's going to be a decision made by a driver or it's gonna be a design error. Those are generally where these are gonna fall down, and they are part of the larger epidemic that we are all living through and experiencing every time we go out on the road. These are not a one-off event. The other thing about so many press accounts is they don't put these crashes into a larger context often enough. They act as though it's an isolated incident rather than an epidemic that's really affecting us here locally and across the country.

The other thing that you'll see in these press accounts so frequently is a bicycle was hit by an SUV or a bicycle was hit by a truck. They depersonalize the driver. The driver's removed from the equation altogether. How many times have you seen these descriptions used? Well, the person was hit by an SUV or, and SUVs have their own little buzzwords of use, right? So what we need to focus on is, what was the action of the driver that contributed to the vehicle striking the pedestrian or striking the cyclist? The thing that we have to personalize the decision made by the driver that resulted in a collision. I think what happens is that these press reports, it's so easy to knock these things out without really thinking or applying much effort to understanding what actually happened, or looking on Google Earth, or talking to someone to find out exactly the context of where and how this happened, or looking back at some research on it.

Another thing that we'll find frequently, and press reports have seen this all over the place, and on media studies, they so many times will add what we call counterfactual information. The cyclist wasn't wearing a helmet or the cyclist was wearing dark clothing. May have had nothing to do with the context of the crash. In the situation in this press report on this poor woman that was hit on the Gulf on Madeira Beach, on Saturday, they note that the person had a helmet on. Well, great, but they were cut off by a garbage truck. It's good that they had a helmet on, but it's focusing on that type of observation but missing the larger context is what I'm concerned about.There's also generally this pro-car bias. We see it in law enforcement. We see it in the press that well, we're driving our cars, cars are designed to be on the road. These cyclists, they're not designed to be there, and they need to watch out for themselves. It's all part of this whole context of victim-blaming without addressing the careless driver, or the drunk driver, or the outdated or what have you road construction or road design. Another thing, it really in these modern days, particularly since the Coronavirus has begun, I think press has really been hit by budgetary issues. They have few reporters. They have fewer reporters with experience. They have less time, I would imagine, to write, research, and determine the outcome of a crash. Particularly something like this, which isn't a large story. But the result of all of that is you kind of get this watered down version of the news with a bias against cycling without addressing the real cause of the crash, which is driver error.

Over at USF in Tampa, we have the Center for Urban Transportation Research, CUTR, Julie Bond and Erin Scheffels at CUTR have done a project in 2018 studying this whole thing about media and how they report on bicycle and pedestrian crashes. And they made an observation that this media bias reflects an assumption that the responsibility for safety falls on the cyclist. Isn't that interesting? So the vulnerable person on the road, the cyclist or the pedestrian, it's up to them. When you look at news reports, and this is what they're studying, when you look at news reports, the implicit assumption is they've accepted the vulnerable road user, the cyclist, the pedestrian, to watch out for their own safety. Well, and I would agree to an extent, but drivers are not absolved, obviously, in this context, and I think Julie and Erin are trying to make that point. This whole context of these articles kind of removes the blame from the driver, which probably, it all is part of a fabric of sort of taking away that blame, that responsibility from drivers, and indirectly sort of places all of this back on the cyclist, which is why this anti-cycling attitude permeates through the press, and through law enforcement, and so many other places. The other thing that Julie and Erin noted in their article was that it creates the impression, as I mentioned earlier, that this is just a series of isolated events, without putting it in sort of a normal and accepted behavior. Sort of like cloudy days that these things happen. It's a cloudy day. This cyclist got run over by a garbage truck, or whatever the circumstances were at that particular collision. Rather than being a part of a larger explosion, episode, or epidemic, if you would, of bike crashes across the country. And I think that the concern that I have, quite frankly, and I think this is addressed by Julie and some of the other researchers, is that this unfair framing, whether it's intentional or not, it is in fact an unfair framing, in my view, of the context of how cycling crashes occur, and it shapes public perception that cyclists are to be blamed for their own injuries. And we see that throughout media reports, throughout so many, I can tell you, looking at all the police reports that I look at. And being involved in all the cases that we're involved in, in so many situations, it strikes me that in some situations, law enforcement arrives at a bike scene, and it's like, "There's a bike crash. "What did the cyclist do wrong? "And we're gonna work till we find that." And then end of discussion, end of case, end of investigation. Now, that's not to say that there aren't really good investigations, and I've seen many of them, but there is definitely an element of, the cyclist crashed; they did something wrong. Let's look for what it was.

So I've got a couple suggestions for how we can sort of change this. I wanna ban the use of the word accident in press reports. I know at the UK, one of the major newspapers over there won't use the word accident when they refer to a bike and vehicle collision. It's just not permitted in their paper. Don't hide the role of the driver. Look past the superficial. Call it as it occurred. I know that paper doesn't want to come out and say, "So and so was at fault." But they can position the vehicle cut the cyclist off. The vehicle turned into the path of the cyclist. The vehicle or the driver opened their door into the path of the cyclist. Identify what the driver behavior was that led to the crash. Look into the situation long enough to describe what actually took place. And focus on the activity, what the driver was doing, what the driver did that contributed to the crash, okay? And that's not to say that every crash is the fault of the driver. I mean, obviously, there are some crashes that cyclists contribute to, but they are not as often as you would gather from the words used in so many press accounts. Don't use these counterfactual statements. They seem hypervigilant on whether a cyclist had a bike helmet on when they were crushed by an 18-wheeler. Why is that an issue that's going to change the direction of a story? Again, it's focused on the victim's behavior rather than focusing on the driver's behavior. And I would urge the press to focus on putting the epidemic of cycling, put this crash into the epidemic of cycling crashes nationwide. And if you have an infrastructure issue. You have a particular intersection, and they know where they are, that results in crashes more often than they should, identify that as part of a larger issue Because sometimes these press reports can generate enough public support that something is done about it, and people respond positively when the problem is identified properly. And the press is in a unique position to do that. They have the mouthpiece, and the voice, and the print to capture public attention, and I'm just urging them to do it in a broad, much more fair context.

But I like to leave you with one other thought. How many times have we seen the victim of a bicycle crash described as the father-of-two who is employed at the printing press, or was a volunteer at this church, or was coach of his Little League team, or this person was a grandfather, married 45 years, a deacon in his church? Why can't we personalize this person who was on a bicycle for recreation or transportation, who has been injured because of the negligent, and the fault, and the decision made by a driver. We need to personalize the loss in the community so that people realize that when they pass the cyclist on the road, that person's a husband or a wife, and a father or a mother. Somebody who's a nurse or whatever they do. Bring the full story to play. What's the issue with not doing that? Because I think that's the way we're gonna change this perception of cycling. It's to let people know that cyclists are real people with real lives, and there are real consequences to a myriad of people that were harmed because of what happens when they get injured.

So that's my thought for the day. I'm Jim Dodson, The Florida Bike Guy. I represent cyclists throughout Florida. Whether you've been injured on the bike or in a car, or frankly, in some other way, I'm here when you need me. So have a great day. Stay safe, stay distant, and stay healthy. Take care, thanks.

Jim Dodson
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A Florida injury lawyer, family man and avid cyclist who clients have trusted for over 25 years.