This past week, several people were injured or killed in traffic collisions. The English language was also savaged by media organizations reporting on the incidents.
- Pioneer Press: “Minnesota pedestrians, age 71 and 83, killed in separate incidents Wednesday”
It’s not just a headline, it’s a lede: “Authorities have identified two women who were killed in separate pedestrian collisions with vehicles on Wednesday in Faribault and Brooklyn Park.”And the article goes on:”…when she was struck by a car that was rapidly backing out of a parking stall.””…was hit by a vehicle traveling east on Brooklyn Boulevard.”
- Bring Me The News: “Pedestrian hit by vehicle in an intersection in Columbia Heights”
“A pedestrian was hit by a vehicle in Columbia Heights on Saturday night.” The follow up from KSTP on Monday is “Police ID driver, pedestrian hit in Columbia heights crash,” which somehow makes it sound like the driver was hit?
- WCCO: “Man Struck By Vehicle In Downtown Minneapolis”
Another rogue vehicle, apparently? “The Minneapolis Police Department says a 28-year-old man was crossing Hennepin Avenue between 4th and 5th street around 11:30 p.m. when a vehicle hit him.”
- Star Tribune: “Two killed when horse-drawn buggy struck from behind near Avon”
“Two people were killed Sunday morning when a pickup truck hit a horse-drawn buggy in Stearns County.” The article later says the F150 “was driven by” a named person. The piece also notes that the horse died.
- City Pages: Another car smashed into Tori 44 this weekend
While this is car vs. building, rather than a pedestrian, the headline is all about the vehicle. Takes to the second paragraph to learn about “the driver,” who apparently sustained minor injuries.
Each article eventually mentions drivers – no driverless cars here! – but in roundabout ways. When there is a crash involving a vehicle and a pedestrian, the driver of the car is set up as little more than a witness.
But cars didn’t cause any of these collisions. A driver hit each one of these people, using a vehicle. Knives don’t stab people of their own volition. Clubs are not accused of beating people. But cars are given agency in the language of the write up, and drivers are afterthoughts. The car is glorified.
Even as many media outlets move away from the word “accident” – as these articles do – the language still in use continues to neuter the issue. “Driver Hits and Kills Pedestrian” has a far different ring, as does “Driver, Vehicle Collide With Pedestrian” or “Driver Strikes Horse-Drawn Buggy; Two Killed.”
In 2002, two authors in the Journal of Traumatic Stress asserted the following, per abstract:
We assert that motor vehicle crash should replace motor vehicle accident in the clinical and research lexicon of traumatologists. Crash encompasses a wider range of potential causes for vehicular crashes than does the term accident. A majority of fatal crashes are caused by intoxicated, speeding, distracted, or careless drivers and, therefore, are not accidents. Most importantly, characterizing crashes as accidents, when a driver was intoxicated or negligent, may impede the recovery of crash victims by preventing them from assigning blame and working through the emotions related to their trauma.
A majority of fatal crashes are caused by intoxicated, speeding, distracted, or careless drivers and, therefore, are not accidents. While this article focused on crash vs. accident, it also clearly lays out that these crashes are caused by drivers. Rare is the incident where the driver is not at least careless when they kill a pedestrian. As a driver, I’m challenged to come up with a scenario where hitting someone while backing one’s car out of a parking spot isn’t driver carelessness. I drive a tiny car, and sure, I get that when you have giant SUVs on either side you have to creep backward. You don’t kill someone and hit a second car creeping backward. Hitting a horse and buggy and managing to kill everyone, including the horse? Driving isn’t being done with appropriate respect for the killing power of the machine in use. And while maybe we can lay some blame on street design in some cases (Tori 44 is having some issues there), drivers still need to operate suitably to the design.
Outlets need to stop deferring the role of the operator in the collision. If the car isn’t driverless, the driver is the agent. If media need to dance around fault, they should borrow language from their other crime coverage. “Driver accused of hitting pedestrian” is still a far step up for assigning appropriate agency.