Language Is Important

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 a
lot 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.

  • Spokker

    How about actually highlighting the body of these articles?

    The Daily News article, for example, sounds like something you would have wanted.

    “Bicyclists have been complaining for years about the dangers they face on city streets. Villaraigosa and LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck have joined in the call for greater public awareness and enforcement of laws to protect riders.”

    It was an accident. The mayor broke his elbow. The body of the article explains that the driver cut him off, forcing him to hit his brakes.

    And all of these newspapers are simply copying the Associated Press story anyway.

  • If the media is looking to avoid assigning blame, they should refer to all incidents as accidents

    9/11 – “plane accident”
    Northridge Quake – “earth accident”
    Hiroshima – “atomic bomb accident”
    BP spill – “profit-seeking gross negligence accident”

  • It seems where some people draw the line is intent. In other words, unless the driver saw the Mayor and thought, “I’m going to run that man off the road” it should be termed an accident. If that is the line, then 9/11 and Hiroshima are off the hook.

    But I think, and the other Streetsblogs have been consistent on this as well that if the crash was avoidable without an error being made by one of those involved, then we shouldn’t let the negligent party off the hook by calling it an “accident.”

    While the driver didn’t decide to hit the Mayor, he did decide that whatever he was doing was more important than making certain that the street was clear of other road users before pulling out.

  • It’s interesting to actually look up the word “accident”. The Merriam Webster online dictionary has three relevant senses:

    1) “[A]n unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance”.
    2) “[A]n unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance”.
    3) “[A]n unexpected happening causing loss or injury which is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured but for which legal relief may be sought”.

    Also interesting how “he broke his elbow” is understood as passive voice (“his elbow was broken accidentally”) but could be interpreted as self-blame, even if it’s uttered by the victim . . .

  • Maybe the problem is “accident” sounds too cute. Like “the baby had an accident” . . .

  • patrick

    While I totally agree that this repeated use of the word “accident” in these contexts do evidence a soft bias by the media, I must note that almost all English words have more than one meaning.

    In the Merriam-Webster dictionary the second definition for accident is:

    “an unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance”

    Saturday’s “event” sounds like it could fit that definition.

  • Chris L

    Driving: the one activity where criminal negligence seems to generally be okay with everyone.

  • Spokker

    They are using the language that people use when these things happen. When two cars collide, the drivers of both will tell other people, “I got into an accident.” regardless of which one is at fault.

    I also wonder if the newspapers are trying to deflect liability. To call it an accident is to not make a judgment. By coming out and saying that the cab driver was at fault might leave them open to a lawsuit if later it is found that it was not the cab drivers fault.

  • This is why people hate us (cyclists). Always looking to make something out of not much. People ride like this all the time too, practically daring drivers to eff-up so that they can get in their face.

    The articles and headlines are written like articles like that are written. It’s no Nixon scandal, just some generic copy that got the usual treatment. When I first read an article on it, I was surprised they gave as much fault as they did by stating it was a cab who cut him off.

    What I’m saying is: you’ve got the right fight, just the wrong kung-fu style. There are plenty of bike problems that don’t need microscopic surgery to reveal. The dude got in an accident and broke his elbow. It’s exactly what any of us would tell someone if the same happened to us.

    …and…comparing to 9/11 is the new Godwin’s law.

  • Cory

    The term “accident” assumes partial fault but denies intention. When a baby has an accident , the baby is partially at fault for the mess that results but does not intend to cause the mess on purpose… it just happens. I am sure that the driver would describe it as an accident, knowing that he had been partially at fault but did not intend to cause harm. But the person on the bike that was run off the road (in this case the mayor) was not at fault at all and would and should describe it as “some !@#$%^&* just ran me off the road!” He did not “accidently” fall off of his bike.

  • spokker I would argue that the headlines are in fact more important than the body of the story. The headlines are what get skimmed by readers who rarely put in the effort to read the body of a story as they skim for something that interests them. Only those who are truly interested in bicycle issues and/or mayoral issues are going to read further into the article. Everyone else will skim the headline and get the gist of the story from that headline. For the majority of news readers they will never understand that the bicycle accident was not the mayor’s fault. They will also not understand that another party caused the crash and left the scene. These are the kinds of details that are missing from the public consciousness in the other stories that Damien pointed to.

  • What the title says to me is that the mayor broke his elbow falling off his bike, alone. Scanning the title I never would have guessed he was cut off.


    “Villaraigosa’s elbow broken in traffic collision” would be better.

  • I think this whole “don’t call it an accident!” angle is a loser. It’s not that it’s necessarily incorrect, it’s just that it’s not a productive way to spend time and resources:

    1) The mayor says he broke his elbow in an accident. This isn’t the media reporting incorrectly. It’s the media happily parroting the mayor. As others have commented, most people would say the same thing as the mayor. That’s just how everyone (except some cycling advocates and martyrs (more about them later) thinks about these things. Unless there’s clear intent to harm, it’s an accident. If your solution to a problem is hoping that the average person will change ingrained thoughts, words, or actions, you have already lost.

    2) I know I swim against the current whenever I argue anything along these lines, but making cyclists into helpless victims or martyrs of evil car drivers is distasteful and counterproductive. If I got into a similar upset, I’d much rather focus on MY behavior and what I could have done differently rather than cast myself as the weak victim. Similarly, while I increasingly think that infrastructure is really important to increase modeshare, I’d rather spend time doing things on the ground encouraging ridership rather than beg Government to please build infrastructure, because when I am out organizing and doing bike rides and bike valet and cyclist education, I am empowering myself and others to make changes, rather than act the supplicant who needs to beg Government for help.

    3) There’s a tendency to gloss over each incident’s facts in order to make the “Don’t call it an Accident!” point. And it’s tiresome, because without facts, we are just making stuff up. At this point, we know that there was a taxi, and it entered into the bike lane ahead of the mayor. We know the mayor flew off his bike and sustained an elbox fx. We don’t know:

    * how far the taxi was ahead of the mayor when he pulled into his path
    * how long the taxi was ahead of the mayor in the lane before the mayor braked
    * whether the bike was in proper working order, or had mechanical issues that contributed to the crash
    * whether the Mayor applied tons of front brake, and no rear brake
    * whether the Mayor has any education on how to ride in traffic, like the League’s Traffic Skills 101 (where you learn how to do emergency turning and braking maneuvers).

    Deciding that the taxi was at fault and caused the mayor’s collision, in the absence of knowing any of these facts, is irresponsible. This sort of tendentiousness is rampant. We know that many drivers will fault the cyclist for existing in the first place, or hold them to impossible standards, or tell them to ride on the sidewalk, etc etc. Cyclists jumping on the opposite side and doing the same sort of thing, but with cars, isn’t helpful, unless your goal is to get the two groups to yell and scream and talk past each other. Unfortunately, I sometimes think that’s the goal.

  • Turns out the mayor is reporting it was an accident and no charges would be filed. Doh.

    If the bike movement is going to get anywhere, it needs to drop the cyclist-centric thinking. It just alienates people, even other cyclists. Not every driver is evil, including all the cyclists that drive. The articles were reported correctly, this post on the other hand was not.

    Maybe you could use it as a lesson to take the goggles of and see the problem from a more centric, and therefore more solvable, view.

    Or maybe we can all just spit on cars and blame everyone but ourselves.

  • If the bike movement is going to get anywhere, it needs to drop the cyclist-centric thinking. It just alienates people, even other cyclists. Not every driver is evil, including all the cyclists that drive. The articles were reported correctly, this post on the other hand was not.

    It’s hardly cycle-centric thinking. The “whoops, I accidently ran x over” mentality applies to cars hitting cars, cars hitting pedestrians, cars hitting cyclists, cyclists hitting pedestrians, and cyclists hitting each other. Carnage is carnage.

    Fifteen year old OD’s at a rave. Nobody calls it an “accident.” Fifteen year old gets hit by a car and all of a sudden it’s not as big a deal as long as the driver wasn’t drunk or didn’t run. The Villaraigosa incident as the other ones I linked to, are just some of the more high-profile versions of the ongoing story.

    In this case, a parked car pulled into traffic in front of another vehicle causing them to use their brakes in an emergency situation or run into the car. It doesn’t matter if the Mayor is driving a tank, the taxi driver is still at fault.

  • Mad Park

    This same bias pops up all the time when there are incidents involving trains – the headlines in the press and on teevee would lead one to believe in about 3/4 of cases that the train or the railway is at fault when in fact almost always the opposite is true: trespassers, autos or ped’s entering the private railway ROW through a flashing crossing gate, driving/walking around the gate, etc, etc. As long as autophilia remains undesignated as a social disease by the APA we will have this problem.

  • Cory

    I really have a problem with the term “trespasser”. Its like “they were breaking the law and deserve what they got.” But working in transportation I hear the term all the time and it makes me cringe. That “trespasser” is often a human being that for whatever reason was in the wrong place at the wrong time and probably paid with his/her life. They deserve alittle more respect and decency than the lifeless “trespasser” title. Additionally, not all rail ROW is private space, for instance much of the rail ROW in Los Angeles County is actually owned by Metro with UP or SCRAA holding an easment over it… making it actually public owned space, the same holds true for most of the at-grade crossings.

    The same mentality behind the term “trespasser” is often thrown at cyclists in Los Angeles as well. Anytime a cyclist is riding on the sidewalk (or crosswalk) and gets hit law enforcement wants to blame the cyclist. When a cyclist is taking a lane or riding two abreast the some motorist wants to tell them that they do not belong there… they are trespassers. Its just derogatory.

  • Spokker

    It would appear that everybody has a different perspective about what words and phrases really convey, and the bottom line is that you can’t please everyone.

    Train hits vehicle. Technically, the train did hit the vehicle. Cyclist broke his elbow. He did. It’s frustrating, but nothing to start a big controversy over.

  • David Galvan

    Count me in the “this is not helpful” column.

    Accident refers to intent, in general. “Accident” when used in regards to traffic refers to an incident/collision regardless of whose fault it was. I don’t think there is any conspiracy to marginalize cyclists by the use of this common term.

    I love this blog, but I see tons of reporting on car vs. bike collisions here, and have yet to see a post where it was ever suggested that anyone other than the car driver might be at fault. Even back when there was that horrible ACCIDENT where a young girl was run over after running against a “Don’t Walk” sign on Sunset Blvd, and the mother who tragically was watching stated that the drivers were not at fault; I recall this blog linking to an editorial that still managed to heap blame on the drivers.

    There is a clear pro-cyclist, anti-driver bias on this blog. I accept the bias and am not that surprised by it, but don’t find it helpful. It builds an “us vs. them!!!” mentality that only raises emotions.

    I have no problem calling an accident a “collision” instead, if you want to avoid any connotation of blame. But the blog posts here tend not to reach for that objectivity, but instead pre-assign blame to whichever vehicle has the most mass.

  • Taking issue with the word “accident” is a way of challenging motorists to take our responsibility to drive safely more seriously. We could focus on who broke the traffic rule, and I encourage people to follow traffic rules.

    But the fact is motorists introduce risks into the environment that would not exist if they used other modes of transportation. Pedestrians and cyclists don’t introduce these risks into the environment, and accordingly they are by default doing more to protect the safety of other road users than even the most conscientious motorist.

    Heavy vehicles driven by human beings at high speeds are (forgive me) an accident waiting to happen. Hence the need for land use policies and infrastructure that give people meaningful options besides the car.

  • Rich Wilson

    I’m very much in the “don’t call it an accident if it was preventable” crowd. It just feels horribly wrong to call it an accident when a driver on a cell phone is responsible for someone’s death.

    Here’s another example: CHP called it a ‘traffic collision’ and the media report it as an accident

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Villaraigosa on HuffPo: I Like to Bike in Los Angeles

Bicycle advocate and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took to the Internet to talk bike policy in the aftermath of this weekend’s crash.  While there’s nothing groundbreaking in his essay; it’s nice to see our city’s political leader take a stand for bicyclists.  If anyone thinks advocates are tilting at windmills when it comes to […]