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Language Is Important

8:29 AM PDT on July 19, 2010

Screen_shot_2010_07_18_at_9.48.25_PM.pngThis terrible headline via the Huffington Post

It's been a common theme when Streetsblog covers crashes to note the soft bias of the writing and headlines in more traditional news sources.  This bias nearly always deflect guilt away from the people who cause the crashes. It amazes me when I watch coverage of a tragedy where change is demanded, say for example when a fifteen year old died of a drug overdose at a "rave", versus the ho-hum when there is a traffic crash.

The crash involving cyclist Villaraigosa this weekend is a great example. I can't find one headline that doesn't exonerate the driver and/or cast blame on Villaraigosa. One could argue that we've only heard the Mayor's version of the story, but one could also argue that there hasn't been any attempt any where to refute his version of the events that led the Mayor's broken elbow. Yet, every headline either calls the crash an "accident," blames the Mayor by saying he "broke his elbow," or sometimes both. Here's a sample of the headlines.

In April of 2009, Andres Tena didn't "run into" a hummer.  Later that year, Shemar Moore wasn't "tooling around on a bicycle" when he was struck by a car.  And this weekend, the Mayor didn't "break his elbow" in an "accident."  A driver cut him off, caused a crash, and in that crash the Mayor's arm was broken.  To write it another way either lets the driver off the hook or places the blame on the victim.

In the comments section on yesterday's story, Spokker writes "All car accidents are called just that, accidents, no matter who caused
it. Why would bike accidents be any different?"  Villaraigosa's twitter feed also reflects the "these things happen" attitude with a comment that

Last night I broke my elbow in a bicycling accident. Thanks to everyone for the well wishes. It means alot to me!

When we use language such as "accident" to describe an incident where a cyclist is forced from his bike because he was cut off, we do a disservice to the cyclist.  When we say someone "broke his elbow" we imply it was his actions that caused the crash.

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