Apr 19, 2012

The Power of Language

Whenever we hear of someone walking or on a bike being hit by someone driving a motor vehicle, the wording used by the media almost always diverts attention away from the responsible road user. The person is reported as being hit by a car, truck, Muni bus, or SUV, as if each of these vehicles had a mind of its own. We see this language in almost every headline involving a traffic collision these days.

Here are some good examples from the past few weeks:

And this one is troubling too. Caught it on my recent trip to NYC along the West Side Greenway.

"Dr. Carl Henry Nacht, 56 Years Old, Killed by Truck"

For many reasons, it's a great idea to use ghost bikes to draw attention to recent traffic fatalities, but it was the truck driver who caused this tragedy. So much info about the victim, but what about the one at fault here.

In this crash, Dr. Carl Henry Nacht was killed by "an NYPD tow truck driver who failed to yield as [he] turned through the protected West Side Greenway towards the NYC tow pound".

Continues after the break.

Of course, when we talk about the recent fatal Market/Castro collision or other crashes which are the fault of someone biking, we get the language right, give details of the person's background, and correctly attribute the fault of the crash to the "bicyclist". Though I must mention that I generally detest "-ist" words – as if people who ride bikes are some other breed entirely: the bicyclist. We should avoid defining people by the mode of travel they are using at present.

While it may seem subtle, what happens when we use this sort of detached language is we take away the responsibility for the crash from the person who caused the harm, and instead focus all attention on the victim. And we're surprised when most of the comments on these articles talk about how you need to look twice before crossing the street, make eye contact with the driver, wear bright clothing, etc. People are thinking more about how the victim should have paid more attention rather than the responsibility of the person driving or the fault of an auto-centric road design.

So here's to the media paying more attention to the language they use when reporting on crashes – that they use more people-centric language. (And muchos kudos to Streetsblog and other hip news sources for being out in front on this one. Streetsblog's Daily Headlines takes this concept to heart every day.) Though it may sometimes sound cumbersome, "people on bikes", "a person driving", and "someone crossing the street" much more clearly describe how we use our streets and help us break away from labeling people by the mode of travel they are using.

As the age-old saying goes: cars don't kill people, people do.

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