Category Archives: Media

Yield to Pedestrians Sign

Story on pedestrian safety reliably attracts negative comments from newspaper readers

Today on his blog Savannah Morning News columnist Bill Dawers examines a story, Ordinance aims to hike driver fines in Chatham County,  published in his paper yesterday. In particular, Bill notes “the article is already spawning the same sort of pedestrian-bashing that begins anytime such ordinances are suggested.”

In fact, these types of comments show up reliably on any story having anything to do with pedestrians (or cyclists). The most offensive generally follow news of a person being killed by another person driving a car. The three most common themes are:

  1. People who get hit by cars generally deserve it.
  2. Increased jaywalking enforcement, instead of initiatives targeting drivers, will improve pedestrian safety.
  3. People should always use crosswalks and sidewalks, even when they do not exist.

It occurred to me that Bill and I have written a lot about pedestrian safety over the years. In reviewing my posts, I’m reminded that quite a few from the list below refer to his newspaper columns:

It can be discouraging to write about the same dangerous street designs, misguided law enforcement strategies, insufficient media coverage, and ignorant and mean spirited comments over and over. Still, there is reason to hope that our state can improve safety and usability for all users now that the Georgia Department of Transportation has adopted a Complete Streets policy.

Truth, thoroughness needed in reporting on tragic traffic crashes

Dec. 5 was a dangerous and deadly day on local streets. A construction worker was killed and others injured as they worked on a Skidaway Island roadway. On Waters Avenue, a business got an unwanted window display in the form of a Toyota SUV.

If you read nothing more about these incidents than what appeared in the Twitter feeds of local media organizations, you’d have to conclude that Savannah was being menaced by an autonomous automobile:

WTOC: 1 dead, 3 injured after car plows into workers
WJCL/WTGS: 1 dead, 3 injured after car strikes workers
WSAV: Car Strikes Construction Workers, Killing 1 and Injuring 3

Only the Savannah Morning News described this crash accurately (emphasis mine):

Driver hits construction workers in Landings subdivision, killing one

Unfortunately, that good work was undone in the lede (again, emphasis mine):

“A 27-year-old man was killed Monday when a car struck him and three co-workers at a road construction site in the Landings subdivision.”

Even the make of the car (Acura) merits a mention before the identity of the human inside it. To make matters worse, the story labels the man’s death as “a mishap.” These incidents are truly tragic. Those who survive, including drivers, will deal with physical and psychological consequences for the rest of their lives. When we assign blame to inanimate objects, we allow ourselves to avoid considering the truth about what happened.

Journalists are hardworking people who are under the constant pressure of looming deadlines. Why not cut them some slack? And really, it’s all just semantics, right?

The problem is that constant reinforcement of the idea that cars are killing people has a numbing effect on our attitudes about traffic deaths. Or as more eloquently explained here:

“This personification of vehicles that maim or kill people (e.g., ‘car hits man on bicycle’) is so common, we think nothing of it, any more than we think twice about describing completely preventable crashes as ‘accidents.'”

The aggregate effect is that we have become sadly tolerant of traffic deaths, according to Tom Vanderbilt:

“As the leading cause of death for people aged 1 to 34 years old in the U.S., traffic deaths represent nothing short of a public health crisis, not a collection of ‘accidents,’ and should be treated as such.”

Please understand I’m not suggesting the drivers involved in these crashes intended to kill or injure people or damage property. Perhaps they were suffering from acute medical problems or another issues completely beyond their control. We may never know as the public usually doesn’t learn the results of traffic investigations, unless major charges are filed. After the initial story, there’s usually not follow up coverage revealing factors that contributed to the crash. We are left a but shallow and often incorrect understanding of a tragic event. All we know is that a person was “killed by a car” in an “accident.”


Newspaper readers fret over street closures for marathon, ignore countless daily closures due to car crashes

Folks who leave comments on the Savannah Morning News website can be relied upon to make all sorts of hyperbolic claims about all sorts of topics. An Oct. 31 story about street closures related to the first running of the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon provided some the opportunity complain about  car-free streets. One even suggested an alternate theory for the recently discussed issue of why people move out of Savannah. It’s not fear of crime or worries about taxes or the search for better schools or the quest for peace and quiet that drives people away from Savannah. No, the tipping point is when roads will be closed for part of one day so people can run a marathon:

“Maybe it is time to move out of this city. Parts of my family has lived in and around Savannah for almost 300 years and I don’t want that to end, but, really maybe it is time.”

Another commenter advanced the popular but misguided notion that using city streets for anything other than the movement of private automobiles cheats the rightful owners of these thoroughfares:

“I pay taxes to use the roads and not to have a sporting event that I don’t see a dime from held in them.”

While the marathon street closures will surely disrupt traffic patterns, the truth of the matter is that streets are closed to traffic in the Savannah area every single day, multiple times per day. Here is just a sample of the scores of Savannah Morning News stories from October that include mention of roads closed by car crashes:

Traffic Alert: Wreck causes I-516 delay
TRAFFIC ALERT: Accidents that could delay your morning commute
Ga. 17 at Roebling Road opens after wreck
UPDATE: Victory Drive reopened after accident
An accident at the intersection of East Derenne Avenue and Abercorn Street is delaying traffic

All of these are individual events and even if dozens of local roads are closed in a single day, it is not the same thing as coordinated road closures to accommodate a major event. I get that. Still, in aggregate these crashes cause many, many more hours of traffic delay and are much more expensive. And, it must be noted, cost many lives.

Yet none of these stories about automobile crashes merited a single comment. Not one commenter lashed out at motorists for causing these accidents, called the drivers involved “morons” or  “idiots,” or accused them of being ignorant of traffic regulations. Not one commenter shared stories of their own encounters with motorists who think they “own the road” or “always have the right of way.”

Oh, but wait, there was one “road closed due to traffic crash” deemed worthy of such comments. It was, of course, a story about a collision between two bicyclists.

Georgia Public Radio sustainability program debuts this Saturday on WSVH

The first episode of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s new radio program, “Sustainable Georgia,” airs for the first time on WSVH-FM this Saturday at 12:30 p.m., with encore presentations on Sundays at 4:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 11:30 p.m. The show’s Web page promises “entertaining and informative segments and features about sustainable and green success stories and community initiatives from all across Georgia.”

If you can’t wait until Saturday, the first program and subsequent episodes can be heard on demand, here.