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.”


This entry was posted in Health, Media, Transportation on by .

About John Bennett

Transportation, land use, local farming and green building are all potential topics for Sustainable Savannah. The goal is to aggregate content about local events and projects, so there will be a central place to review everything that’s happening. The site is aimed at encouraging collaboration and information sharing between groups and individuals currently engaged in sustainability efforts. The site can also provide a snapshot of Savannah for green-minded people who are considering visiting or moving to the area.

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