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Crash! On how we need to change how we talk about car crashes

By Robyn Kalda, HC Link

 

Car Crash

Today I'd like to highlight a particularly interesting and unhelpful form of language that affects how we think about car crashes -- a major cause of mortality in Canada, and an area ripe for health promotion and injury prevention work.

Let's look at the following reports from a variety of news outlets. I've chosen these fairly randomly -- they are very typical examples:

1. "The investigation revealed that the car had been travelling west on Hillsview Rd. when it entered the north ditch and rolled onto its' [sic] roof." 

2. "Police say that a white Toyota was driving southbound on Markham Rd. and was hit by a red northbound Toyota as the latter made a left-hand turn onto Elson St. The white vehicle ricocheted onto the sidewalk, striking the pedestrians." 

3. "Toronto police say a man is dead after his car plunged into a pit at a west-end construction site this morning. Police say the car went through the fence surrounding the site (on Joe Shuster Way near King and Dufferin streets) and into the pit, which is roughly two storeys deep."

4. "A rollover claimed the life of a woman in her 20s as she walked her dog on Thornhill Woods Drive in Vaughan. After striking the woman, the vehicle continued off the roadway, struck several trees, drove over a hydro box and then came to rest after flipping several times."

The big question for me when I look at these reports: where are the drivers? Why are all these cars behaving so very badly, all on their own? There's a passivity and lack of agency in the language here that I think is very problematic. If it's the cars themselves that are causing all these crashes, then in our minds the drivers are just along for the ride. And when pedestrians fail to leap out of the way of errant automobiles, it must somehow be the pedestrian's fault.

In New York, the police have begun to change their minds on this issue. While they used to feel "There's no criminality. ... That's why they call it an accident," they're now changing their policy to refer to "collisions' instead of "accidents". Indeed a "collision" sounds much less passive than an "accident". But if we are going to make a serious attempt at reducing crashes, I think we need to put the responsibility for the crash firmly back where it belongs -- in the vast majority of cases, on the driver -- and so we should start describing crashes differently.

In the early 20th century when cars were a new invention, crashes were described more accurately. Sarah Goodyear wrote an excellent summary of this in her piece "The Invention of Jaywalking". Drivers whose cars killed other drivers, passengers or pedestrians were charged with "technical manslaughter" or a similar quite serious charge. These days you're more likely to get an inexpensive ticket and perhaps a couple of demerit points.

The news article that really brought this issue to the fore for me was this one:

An accident on Lake Shore Blvd. W. on Wednesday afternoon that left 10 people injured and downtown traffic snarled past rush hour is a tragic reminder of the importance of road awareness. Two vehicles smashed into each other and then into a group of people and a lamp post at the intersection at about 1:20 p.m. ...
On Lake Shore, "you're very much part of the intersection," [Const. Hugh] Smith said, and it's crucial for people to be watching traffic at all times in case they need to act quickly to protect themselves."

To be clear, six pedestrians were standing -- quite legally -- on the sidewalk at an intersection. The driver of one car made an illegal maneuver at high speed, thus crashing his/her (the driver's name is not even mentioned) car into another car, thus causing both cars to career at high speed up over the sidewalk and into the six pedestrians. And it's somehow the pedestrians' fault for having insufficient "road awareness" and not being able to "act quickly to protect themselves"? (The poor lamp post; I suppose it was at fault for not moving also.)

This is not a helpful way of thinking.

Let's rewrite the examples above to reflect agency more accurately:

1. "The investigation revealed that the car had been travelling west on Hillsview Rd. when it entered the north ditch and rolled onto its' [sic] roof."

While travelling west on Hillsview Rd, Mr/Ms So-and-so drove his/her car into the north ditch and rolled it onto its roof.

2. "Police say that a white Toyota was driving southbound on Markham Rd. and was hit by a red northbound Toyota as the latter made a left-hand turn onto Elson St. The white vehicle ricocheted onto the sidewalk, striking the pedestrians."

Mr/Ms So-and-so, driving a red Toyota northbound on Markham Rd., turned left into Mr/Ms OtherPerson's southbound white Toyota at Elson Ave., ricocheting the white car into a group of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

3. "Toronto police say a man is dead after his car plunged into a pit at a west-end construction site this morning. Police say the car went through the fence surrounding the site (on Joe Shuster Way near King and Dufferin streets) and into the pit, which is roughly two storeys deep."

Toronto police say a man is dead after he drove his car through a fence surrounding a construction site (on Joe Shuster Way near King and Dufferin streets) and down into a two-storey-deep construction pit.

4. "A rollover claimed the life of a woman in her 20s as she walked her dog on Thornhill Woods Drive in Vaughan. After striking the woman, the vehicle continued off the roadway, struck several trees, drove over a hydro box and then came to rest after flipping several times."

An elderly driver struck and killed a woman in her 20s as she walked her dog on Thornhill Woods Drive in Vaughan. After striking the woman, Mr./Ms. So-and-so continued off the roadway, struck several trees, drove over a hydro box and then flipped the car several times.

 

I've made a conscious habit of mentally rephrasing crash reports in this way -- and virtually all of them need it. Keep an eye out and try it yourself!

I think changing the language around this is an important injury prevention measure. We can't effectively work on preventing, changing or mitigating an issue until we can talk about it in a clear way, and in a way that puts the responsibility for the problem in the right place.

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Comments 2

 
Guest - Plan The North on Tuesday, 23 July 2013 12:22

I've been thinking the same thing for a while now, but I had a chat with a journalist who made a good point. If you say "the driver hit the pedestrian" it implies fault, although in almost all cases the incident is being reported on before the investigation has been completed and almost always before anybody has been convicted of any crime.

I still think some work has to be done to avoid suggesting fault on the part of victims.

0
I've been thinking the same thing for a while now, but I had a chat with a journalist who made a good point. If you say "the driver hit the pedestrian" it implies fault, although in almost all cases the incident is being reported on before the investigation has been completed and almost always before anybody has been convicted of any crime. I still think some work has to be done to avoid suggesting fault on the part of victims.
Guest - Robyn on Tuesday, 23 July 2013 15:28

I think there are ways to address the fault issue without removing the actual people from the scene entirely though -- "this person was driving this car. This happened." vs "this person did this," if you see the distinction. In no other kind of crime do we remove the person. Making it sounds like it's all the car's fault isn't helpful -- unless, of course, we start to charge *cars* with crimes!

0
I think there are ways to address the fault issue without removing the actual people from the scene entirely though -- "this person was driving this car. This happened." vs "this person did this," if you see the distinction. In no other kind of crime do we remove the person. Making it sounds like it's all the car's fault isn't helpful -- unless, of course, we start to charge *cars* with crimes!