October 5, 2020

Media~Please Stop Victim Blaming in Reporting Pedestrian Fatal Crashes

Our words and how we view the street are all oriented for the vehicle.  Sidewalks were developed to get pedestrians out of the way of vehicle drivers so they could enjoy unfettered speed on the street. Mid-block pedestrian crossings are a lot safer for pedestrians because there are no vehicular driver turning movements, but are less convenient for car drivers  which have to stop mid-block. Instead pedestrians cross at corners where there are lots of vehicular drivers turning as well. When it is helpful to the car driving lobby, we treat vulnerable street users, those not encased in a steel cage, like vehicles.

That has transpired in language too where we have car accidents instead of crashes, and we talk about cars making right turns and crashing into hapless pedestrians instead of describing it as the inattention, speed or behaviour of the vehicle driver. It was Dr. Ian Pike, Director of the BC Injury Research and Prevention Unit at the excellent B.C. Vision Zero Summit  who provided a media briefing on the fact we just have to start labelling pedestrian crashes as the deadly catastrophes they actually are.

And that means making our media use of terms accountable too. Last week The Vancouver Sun stepped right into it with a headline proclaiming “Elderly woman dies in Point Grey after being struck by a vehicle”.  

What? Who defines elderly? And does that make it better that she died because the writer decided to list the victim that way? This was a 73 year old lady that was walking at the 10th Avenue and Sasamat signalized intersection with  pedestrian markings that was mowed down by a inattentive driver at 5:00 p.m.

It was a clear day, it was sunny, there were no excuses.

The  Vancouver Sun article then goes on that the critically injured victim was dead at arrival at the hospital and that the driver of the vehicle “remained at the scene and is co-operating with police”. 

Seriously? The driver is doing what is required as per the law.

It again is written in a way for us all to say, well good, the driver stopped in case the woman was not dead. We don’t hear that a well loved  family member expected home did not make it for dinner, what the impact was on her family, or on her friends and relatives. And we don’t dwell on the fact that it was a useless, preventable death caused by driver inattention, driver speed, or driver error  because the driver was “co-operating”.

The Vancouver Sun’s reporting language is not good enough. It is not up to any journalist to define what “elderly” is, or try to make readers think that the perception of being “old” makes this sixth pedestrian fatality  this year in Vancouver a good justifiable death.

As Mari Jo DiLonardo wrote in TreeHugger  a new study in Finland compared the physical and cognitive abilities of people aged 75 to 80 with those of the same age thirty years ago.  What the study found was that in people aged 75 to 80 today,  “muscle strength, walking speed, reaction speed, verbal fluency, reasoning, and working memory, are all significantly better than they were in people born three decades earlier when they were the same age.” 

The age of 73 is not necessarily “elderly”. And age should never be used as an excuse to make a death by being crashed into by a vehicle more palatable. It is not.

In Great Britain the draft Road Collision Reporting Guidelines have been produced by the Active Travel Academy to assist journalists and others to stop contributing to “a culture that dehumanises those injured and killed on the roads, and perpetuates an acceptance of road danger, and of careless and dangerous driving.”

You can take a look at those draft guidelines here. Let’s ensure that the responsibility for road danger rests with vehicular drivers.

Vancouver’s  sixth pedestrian fatality in 2020 was a needless, avoidable death. This is where the story should be.

Images AARP, SandyJames






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  1. This tendency was prevalent in the initial reporting of the Capilano Dam spill also … asking not ‘why did 338x more water suddenly spill’ but ‘why were people in the way’

  2. Thank you for this post! I couldn’t agree more. I am repeatedly incensed by the soft-peddling of language in media reports of pedestrians and cyclists “involved n car accidents”. The agency should be attributed to the automobile and its driver, as in “driver kills pedestrian”. That simple change would make a world of difference in our perception and understanding of what happens on the road.

  3. Have you ever sat down and added up the space devoted to car advertising in the papers and on line? There’s a whole section devoted to driving too – driving yet more car ads. I once went through a Province newspaper and car advertising made up more than 40% of the entire content of the paper. Not 40% of the advertising. 40% of everything. Without car advertising there would be no newspapers.

    The way they frame their car accident stories is very deliberate and you’ll never get them to voluntarily change that. Try writing a letter to the editor pointing out their wording. Good luck. Why do you think they spent more than two decades undermining their own credibility on climate change? The auto industry would have made them pay the price for reporting the unequivocal science.

  4. A friend saw the her tumbling after the accident and stopped along with others to provide aid. They did everything they could until the paramedics arrived, but sadly it was not enough. He knew she was in rough shape and he was left traumatized, wondering if he could have done more.

    These types of accidents are unnecessary. As a runner, walker and cyclist, I’ve seen far too many drivers not look when turning at intersections, particularly not looking right for pedestrians when turning right, but also not looking for pedestrians when turning left. As well, many go flying out of blind alleys or don’t stop at stop signs at stop signs or red lights. Fortunately for me, I expect this so prepare for it and I’m also fairly agile and quick, so can stop fairly quickly or jump out of the way, which I’ve had to far too many times, but not everybody can do this. Drivers need to re-learn to pay proper attention. I’m in favour of regular retesting of drivers, as far too many develop bad habit that endanger others.

  5. Let’s not forget the cops in this narrative. They write the incident reports upon which all insurance and media reports are based. They’re no less biased in their default pro-motorist setting.

    1. It would be interesting to know what was done to shift this mindset in the Netherlands with their police … it used to be as car-centric as here.

      1. They changed the traffic laws to make the motorist immediately at fault in a collision with a vulnerable road user.

          1. Police just follow the law – or should. They get used to it. Besides, they probably all ride bikes themselves.

            At the peak of motordom in the Netherlands there were over 500 cycling fatalities a year among children alone. The police had to respond to those. I doubt they were that hard to convince. Since then they’ve slashed cycling fatality rates by over 80%.

          2. agree (replying to RvdE’s message @ 2:06) … but we see here how much the police seem to go out of the way to find any and all excuse to indemnify the driver … even inventing new rules that the cyclist wasn’t following … so I don’t have confidence that a mere rule change would be sufficient … the police here have to respond also, and don’t, many likely ride bikes here also, but that also doesn’t seem to help … I just think its bigger than a rule change that is needed, and formal reeducation also needed

  6. I thank you for this contribution as well, but it seems that our society is still a very long way from being civilized. Our city streets are built and paid for by property owners – property tax and developer charges for subdivisions are the chief sources of street-building revenues, but pedestrians are alocatedted just a fraction of the space in streets. And that very grudgingly – witness the recent fight for street space in Vancouver’s Stanley Park and the behaviour of the NPA commissioners! We need to return to civilized ways existent before motordom took over the life of the contemporary street and our cities – more space for pedestrians and more vulnerable users such as cyclists, lower lighting levels (ambient and users) and less noise (honking for emergencies only, not just the convenience of motorists).

  7. I think the wording used by the media is intended to generate sympathy for the victim.

    “Man struck by vehicle” puts the victim as the focus of the sentence.
    It diverges from the standard subject-verb-object sentence structure to do so.

    “Vehicle strikes man” or “Driver strikes man” puts the vehicle or driver up front (which is what you seem to prefer from a blame perspective), but places the victim as the object of the sentence, so the victim becomes secondary.

    The media is all about focussing on the human (sympathetic) side of stories.

    “Vehicle/Driver strikes man” has about as much empathy as “vehicle/driver strikes tree”.
    No one cares about the tree.

  8. A lot of accidents, perhaps most, are the result of TWO inattentive parties. In this age of cell phones it’s all the more important to be vigilant. Most accidents can be prevented if you’re paying attention. That goes for pedestrians as well as drivers, but it’s of more importance for pedestrians because they stand the most to loose in any accident involving a motor vehicle.

    By the time we get around to assigning blame it’s way too late – far better to have seen the accident coming and avoid it altogether.

    1. No, it’s of more importance for the motorists since they’re the one driving the deadly weapon. We regulate firearms because they are dangerous. We don’t regulate getting shot.

      1. Cars and driving a car are heavily regulated. Walking around is generally not.

        We need to distinguish between major throughfares and smaller residential roads. Different rules ought to apply. Speed is indeed very dangerous and often far too high on urban roads, but many folks, both cycling and walking are inattentive, not just the car driver, when crossing the road or using it.

        Mid block crossings seems to make a lot of sense. Why do we have so few in Vancouver? Ditto with 30 km/h in residential (not throughfares) streets. When will we see this in Vancouver?

        1. “Walking around is generally not.”

          Walking is quite heavily regulated. We even invented a law to take away street space from pedestrians in favour of motorists (jaywalking) Heck we regulate perambulation right down to the ‘keep off the grass’ signs. Even our mixed use paths have rules.

      2. Ron van der Eerden wrote: “No, it’s of more importance for the motorists since they’re the one driving the deadly weapon.”

        When you’re a pedestrian you can place your faith in the drivers if you want. As for me, I’m not going to trust them an inch. There’s little solace in being in the right when you’re in a hospital bed, or worse.

        That’s what I mean when I say it’s more important for pedestrians to be on the lookout. Those who suffer the worst consequences have the best reason to be wary.