How Language Choices Blame the Victim


I was in a fury last week after learning that someone killed a Minneapolis child with their car on Halloween. First, I was angry that this happened at all. Halloween is the deadliest day of the year by far for children walking. Just this Halloween alone, 4 people were killed and 7 were injured around the country because people driving cars ran into people walking. Everyone should be very careful when driving on Halloween, simply for the fact that there will be a lot of children out and about. Children who are dressed like vampires and werewolves who want to dart out of the darkness to scare you. Children who are playing tag with their friends and rushing to the next doorbell, hoping that this house will finally be handing out full-size candy bars. Children who are so hyped up on sugar that they can’t stop moving, can’t stop running, can’t stop to look both ways before crossing the street. So yes, I was angry that anyone would be driving their car at speeds that could kill a child, in light of the fact that children are unpredictable. The one thing that isn’t unpredictable, on Halloween, is the fact that many, many children will be walking around.

The second issue, and maybe the bigger one, was the language the Start Tribune used right after the crash. The article read “Car runs over and kills boy, 5, crossing Minneapolis parkway.” Oh, a car killed the boy? A car that was suspiciously unmanned because it suddenly became sentient and started driving itself ran over a human child? No. A car did not kill a child. A person did. They updated the title later, to “Young trick-or-treater hit and killed crossing Minneapolis parkway,” which still very conveniently does not call out the driver for being involved in the crash at all.

There were many other problems with this article. When it first came out, there were very few facts available. The article mentioned that the driver was not suspected to have been distracted or intoxicated. Sure, that’s a fact we’d all probably like to know. However, the article also stated that it was unknown whether the child was “wearing illumination” or whether he crossed at a designated crossing. If you’re familiar with this particular incident, you’ll know that it was a unique and tragic case. The child was in a car on the parkway, opened the door before the car had stopped, and ran out across the street before the oncoming car had time to stop. I’m not vilifying the driver for hitting the child in this particular case. I’m calling out the way it was talked about before anyone even knew the details.

The point is that the media frames fatal crashes involving a person walking or biking as if it was the victim’s fault. As if the victim didn’t take enough precautions to not get hit. Sure, the exact situation varies with each of these incidents. However, the conversations we have about whose responsibility it is to stay safe are absurdly skewed. Every news story that comes out after a person biking is killed in a car crash comments on whether the biker was wearing a helmet, even though helmets won’t do much to protect you against a two-ton vehicle traveling at 45mph. In the case of this child, the Star Tribune felt it necessary to mention illumination and where the child crossed. By even mentioning these things, they told us that those are the important things to consider in fatal pedestrian crashes. Well, people might say, if the kid didn’t have hi-viz elements in their costume, it’s their fault for not being visible enough. If the child didn’t cross at a designated crossing, then really there’s nothing that could’ve been done to prevent this crash. This language primes people to think about what the victim could have done to prevent dying. This language made space to blame the victim and absolve the driver even before any of the details of this crash were known.

It’s just an accident

The same thing happens when we use the word accident to refer to a car crash. Saying accident absolves blame from anyone involved in the crash. It absolves blame from everyone in our society who drives. Our attitudes around these deaths are like a big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Oops, accidents happen! If you don’t want to get run over it’s your responsibility to be vigilant and visible!

If accidents happen, and are unavoidable, traffic deaths are just tragic things that cannot be helped. But that’s absurd. An accident is when lightning strikes a tree near you, causing the tree to fall on you and kill you. That’s an accident. That’s something you can’t predict or prevent. In the US, 30,000 people each year are killed in car crashes. They’re sadly predictable and commonplace. The way we design our roads and our vehicles and our lives contributes to this death toll. It’s anything but accidental.

People who are walking or biking get killed all the time by people driving. But because police officers and jurors are often drivers themselves, they identify with the person who was driving. This has led to very few consequences for killing someone, as long as you kill them while you’re in a car. This perpetuates the idea that car crashes are just accidents, occurrences that are unavoidable, that could happen to anyone. Obviously if it wasn’t accidental, there would be consequences.

It’s too inconvenient to make things safer

ped speedsThe truth is that nobody wants to do the things that will greatly improve pedestrian safety. Our roads encourage people to drive at fatal speeds in urban areas where people are often walking and biking. Driving at 40mph feels normal to many people, because they’re used to it. They’re used to driving that fast when passing a person biking. They’re used to weaving around a person in a crosswalk at that speed. They don’t know how fatal it is. The road tells them that driving that fast is safe and acceptable. How else would they know better?

safe kids seen

From Safe Kids Oregon

The only option for greatly reducing fatalities among people walking and biking is to redesign our roads to be safer and slower. But that comes at a cost that many, or most, are unwilling to make. It would make commutes longer, they say. It would increase congestion. So instead, governments come up with pedestrian safety campaigns, like this one in Oregon. Safe kids are seen! Well, if you’re not a safe kid, then we’ll wash our hands if you if something happens to you. These pedestrian safety campaigns communicate to everyone that it is the person walking’s responsibility to stay safe. It’s a wilderness out there. The cars are going fast, and there’s nothing we can do to slow them down. So you better keep yourself safe.

Perhaps George Orwell said it best when he wrote:

“But the only palliative measure that would make a real difference is a drastic reduction in speed. Cut down the speed limit to twelve miles an hour in all built-up areas, and you would cut out the vast majority of accidents. But this, everyone will assure you, is ‘impossible’. Why is it impossible? Well, it would be unbearably irksome. It would mean that every road journey took twice or three times as long as it takes at present. Besides, you could never get people to observe such a speed limit. […]

In other words we value speed more highly than we value human life. Then why not say so, instead of every few years having one of these hypocritical campaigns… in the full knowledge that while our roads remain as they are, and present speeds are kept up, the slaughter must continue?”


I’m calling out the Star Tribune, and any other media outlet. They need to be more responsible with the words they use. By talking about whether the victim did everything in their power to prevent being killed, they are communicating that traffic deaths are unavoidable, accidental, and blameless. They are saying that it’s a victim’s responsibility to stay safe, and therefore it’s the victim’s fault if they are hurt or killed. Media outlets have a lot of power when it comes to priming the way people see issues. They need to decide whether they’re going to use this power for good.

This post was cross posted at

Lindsey Wallace

About Lindsey Wallace

Lindsey Wallace is a diehard Minnesotan and an enthusiastic pedestrian and bicyclist. Armed with a master's degree in public health and a bicycle, she pedals the city observing how the built environment impacts healthy choices. Lindsey works for Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Bender and is the City Council representative on the Pedestrian Advisory Committee. When not dreaming up a future bike utoptia, Lindsey cooks dinner for friends, sews her own clothes, walks her dog, and talks to folks about biking which she writes about at