Reframing the Narrative of Car-Bike Collisions
On the eve of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, Mike Hall, one of the titans of endurance cycling, was pedaling into the last 300 miles of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race—a grueling, unsupported, solo road race across the entirety of Australia—when he was hit and killed by a person driving a car. The winner of the IPWR receives no money; Mike and his fellow racers did it for the love of riding, and Mike died doing what he loved.
Here are a couple headlines and quotes from news coverage of Mike’s death:
BRITISH CYCLIST HALL DIES IN ACCIDENT DURING AUSTRALIAN RACE (Associated Press, via The Syracuse Blog)
LEGENDARY ENDURANCE CYCLIST KILLED IN ACCIDENT (GearJunkie)
“Police said the accident happened before sunrise.” (The Mirror)
Notice anything about the way these are worded?
All too often in their coverage of vehicle-related fatalities, journalists and reporters pay lip service to the tragedy in question, only to undercut their sentiments by labeling it an “accident.” Fox News recently described a 2015 road rage incident in which a motorist purposefully swerved into a passing motorcycle—sending both people on board to the hospital and resulting in the aggressor being sentenced to 15 years in prison—as an accident.
The use of this word to describe avoidable collisions isn’t limited to the media. In fact, it’s become commonplace throughout society. Even those firmly embedded in the biking world slip up in the heat of the moment: in a moving video tribute posted to Facebook, Juliana Buhring—a friend of Mike’s and a fellow competitor in the IPWR— tearfully alerted her friends, family, and followers that Mike had been “killed in a moto accident.”
The notion that these tragedies are unavoidable accidents is insidious and dangerous. It desensitizes us to future heartbreak and removes culpability—a critical variable—from an often complex equation that includes the motorist’s behavior, the cyclist’s behavior, street design, weather conditions, and much more. To insist on assigning liability is not to say that it is always the fault of the person driving the car or the person riding the bike, but it’s critical to acknowledge that someone’s behavior or decision resulted in the death of an innocent person. (In the wake of the collision that killed Mike, only one news outlet (Deadspin) implicated the responsible party in its headline: ENDURANCE CYCLING LEGEND MIKE HALL KILLED BY CAR DRIVER AT AGE 35)
This may seem like a futile exercise in finger-pointing. If these things really are accidents, that’d be true—no sense in crying over spilled milk, right? Right. But what if the glass is built to spill? In other words, because collisions are not accidents, that means we can do something to prevent them, and that’s encouraging.
People biking and walking have the most to lose in a collision with a vehicle, but it isn’t just advocates among these populations who have recognized the danger in describing crashes as “accidents” and subsequently lobbied for change. In a 2013 article on policy modifications relating to the NYPD’s “Accident Investigation Squad,” the New York Times reported that,
in a symbolic semantic change that some advocates for crash victims have long requested, the department will begin using the term “collision” instead of “accident” to describe crashes, [Police Commissioner] Kelly said. The squad itself will soon be renamed the Collision Investigation Squad.
“In the past, the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event,” Mr. Kelly wrote.
We can and should applaud the NYPD and outlets like Deadspin for doing their part to reframe the narrative, but when lives are on the line, we can’t afford to leave it at that; as the saying goes, “if you aren’t a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Luckily, it’s easy to be a part of the solution: stop using the word “accident” and start using the word “crash.” Encourage your friends and family to do the same. When you see the word “accident” used in the news to describe an avoidable tragedy, write an email or letter to the editor and ask them to reconsider their choice of words—they matter, and semantics are contagious. And if you work in media relations or as a journalist, help us reframe the narrative and call it what it is: #crashnotaccident