Car-Centric Biases Show in Coverage of Deadly Hit-and-Run Car-Scooter Crash

Can a "hit-and-run accident" actually exist? Screenprint from Santa Monica Mirror
Can a "hit-and-run accident" actually exist? Screenprint from Santa Monica Mirror

Last Friday, Santa Monica experienced what appears to be L.A. County’s first e-scooter rider death – which is to say, the first time that a person driving a car has killed a person riding an e-scooter. Media coverage of the tragic loss of life is telling. Mainstream media coverage of scooters – as well as walking, bicycling, and transit – often suffers from being told from a driver’s perspective.

From the SMPD alert the as-yet-unnamed 41-year-old rider fell and was then hit by a car. The driver reportedly got out of his car briefly, then drove away before first responders arrived. The rider was taken to the hospital, where he died from head injuries.

Like many mainstream traffic violence headlines, coverage of this hit-and-run suffered from the near-ubiquitous use of the passive voice. While this is not necessarily wrong, Tom Vanderbilt suggests that passive voice broadly attributes less blame to the perpetrator and less harm to the victim, compared to using active voice. Vanderbilt invites comparing “a woman was killed when an intoxicated driver lost control of a van” to “an intoxicated driver killed a woman when he lost control of a van.”

Other than the laudable NBC4 headline “Santa Monica Hit-and-Run Driver Strikes Man on Scooter” all of the scooter rider’s death coverage headlines used the passive voice. For example, Curbed‘s headline reads “Santa Monica scooter rider killed in hit-and-run.”

Both the L.A. Times and the Santa Monica Mirror initially reported the death as due to a “hit-and-run accident.”

Generally, “accident” by itself is inadvisable for press coverage of traffic deaths.

But “hit-and-run accident” is a contradiction in terms. No “hit-and-run” can be an “accident.”  Nobody accidentally flees the scene of a car crash. Leaving the scene is a deliberate choice and a crime.

(The Times rightly later updated its headline from “hit-and-run accident” to “hit-and-run crash.”)

LAist initially ran the headline: “Man Dies in Hit-And-Run Crash After Falling Off E-Scooter in Santa Monica.” The site later posted a correction stating that the headline was “incomplete and incorrect”and updated it to read: “Man Riding E-Scooter Killed in Hit-And-Run Crash in Santa Monica.”

The updated version is better, but still passive. Reading either one of these headlines, one might not know there was a car or a driver involved.

The Santa Monica Daily Press has two articles on the crash. One covers two crashes, calling them both “serious accidents.” The other uses the passive voice: “Scooter rider dies in Ocean Park hit-and-run.” No SMDP headline mentions a car or driver involved.

LAist reports that last weekend’s crash was “at least the second death of an L.A. resident who was riding a scooter” after a September 2018 South L.A. motorized mini-bike (vs. car) crash death. LAist asserts that that crash took place on an “e-scooter” though KTLA footage shows otherwise. Unfortunately those motorized mini-bike/moped scooter deaths are not new. The South L.A. crash was not even the only motor-scooter crash death that September; another car vs. motor scooter crash death took place in Silver Lake on September 4, 2018. That crash was a hit-and-run.

For what it’s worth, according to the police, the Santa Monica death was on a privately-owned scooter. For all the repeated clamor over public safety dangers posed by Bird and Lime rental e-scooters, to date there have been no reported L.A. County deaths of shared e-scooter riders since the devices were introduced in late 2017.

L.A. County does suffer from 500+ traffic deaths each year – all caused by cars – but that’s another story.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG