Guest Blog: Bad ‘Crash’ Reporting – Why language matters

Learn more from Patrick Brown, Critical Injury Lawyer at McLeish Orlando



by Patrick Brown, Critical Injury Lawyer at McLeish Orlando LLP and representing Bike Law Canada 

As a bike crash lawyer, I have seen far too many crashes that get unfairly reported when a vulnerable road user such as a cyclist or pedestrian is involved.  There is a tendency to turn the initial focus on the conduct of the victim. This sets up a situation of victim blaming and promotes the already negative culture that exists toward vulnerable road users.  Unfortunately this culture spills over into our court system and creates an erroneous perception by the public as to what is causing these deaths and injuries.
Things have not improved; in fact, vulnerable road user fatalities are increasing. There has been a decrease in fatalities involving driver on driver collisions; however this doesn’t correspond to cyclists and pedestrians – we have already seen 23 deaths in 2016.  Responsibility for crashes is being diluted and drivers are increasingly becoming more distracted.  

In the Coroner’s Review of Cycling Deaths, it was found that 62% of fatalities are a result of driver misconduct, including speeding, failing to yield and distracted driving. When it comes to pedestrian death, it was strikingly apparent that speed kills. When the Coroner’s Office gave its recommendation as to what will prevent these deaths, it listed as number one, the need for infrastructure. But despite the stats, crashes continue to be reported by focusing on the conduct of the victim.

Language is important. There is a reason we call it a “plane crash” and not a “plane accident.” To understand the problem, one can consider the following reporting issues:

  • Despite every death of a vulnerable road user being listed as “preventable” by our Chief Coroner, reporting continues to use the word “accident.” This softens an otherwise alarming problem. It excuses the driver’s negligent actions and justifies deficient infrastructure.

  • What the cyclist was wearing, helmet choices, and whether or not they had lights on their bike are usually mentioned in these reports even when they play little or no role in the crash. While it is a common question to ask, this shifts our thinking to what the cyclist could have done to prevent the crash and it encourages victim blaming.

  • The use of “car struck cyclist” rather than “driver” or “person” is also very common. This shields the fact that a human was responsible for the crash. Could you imagine the absurdity if unintentional or intentional gun violence was reported in the same manner? “A gun shot the bystander.”

  • A bicycle “collided with” a car makes it seem as though the rider hit a stationary car, rather than a moving vehicle crashing into them. Again, this twists the focus of blame on the cyclist, rather than the driver.    

  • Although many drivers are travelling in excess of the speed limit, speed of the driver is seldom reported in a crash with a cyclist or pedestrian unless it is extreme or the driver is racing. Meanwhile, the speed of a cyclist which is generally within the speed limit is frequently reported as “fast.” By ignoring a driver’s speed of 5 or 10 km’s over the limit in reporting a crash we are only enhancing a culture that says speeding is okay.

A coalition of walking, cyclist and pedestrian advocates including Walk Toronto, Cycle Toronto and​ ARC are meeting with Toronto Police Traffic Services to talk about the way crashes are reported.  We feel that by opening the lines of communication we will be able to discuss how reporting influences the public and how it can change so that we can work to transform that negative culture, and hopefully develop laws that protect cyclists and pedestrians and create a culture where all road users share the road safely.  

Bike Law is a network of bicycle crash attorneys that formed in 1999.  Bike Law Canada is represented by Patrick Brown, a cyclist, advocate and bike crash lawyer.

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