For nearly a decade, the United States has been grappling with a growing epidemic of pedestrian deaths. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, the number of pedestrian fatalities from 2010-2017 increased by nearly 39 percent. The numbers continued to climb in the years that followed. For example: in 2018, 6,227 pedestrians were killed in the U.S. — up more than four percent from 2017.
When we hear the horrific stories about pedestrians killed on Massachusetts roads, the news should be alarming. Safety advocates, however, say that the public is seemingly numb to this epidemic, and erroneous media coverage may be the culprit.
News outlets subtly shift blame away from drivers
The National Academy of Sciences' Transportation Research Board explains why there is a lack of public outcry in a research study published in 2019. The study was pieced together by researchers at Rutgers University, Arizona State University, and Texas A&M University. The study referred to pedestrians and bicyclists as "vulnerable road users" (VRUs) and raised two important questions regarding media coverage of crashes:
- How is blame allocated between drivers and VRUs in the media?
- To what extent are VRU crashes referred to as "public health issues", and therefore, preventable?
The authors of the study compiled more than 4,000 news articles from February and March 2018 relating to crashes involving VRUs. Roughly 200 local news articles were selected for content analysis. About half of the articles reported on pedestrians, while the other half focused on bicyclists. The study suggested a tendency of news outlets to "subtly" shift the blame onto VRUs.
“Coverage almost always obscures the public health nature of the problem by treating crashes as isolated incidents, by referring to crashes as accidents, and by failing to include input from planners, engineers, and other road safety experts,” said the study.
The nature of object-based language
The authors of the study refer to the nature of typology in the selected articles as "object-based language," which they believe minimizes driver blame. For example:
- The term "accident" (as opposed to crash) was used in nearly 50 percent of the body text and 11 percent of titles.
- New articles were more likely to use typology like "a VRU was hit by a car" rather than "a driver hit a VRU."
- An agent was included in 65 percent of sentences but was centered around VRUs.
- The term "vehicle" was used 81 percent of the time, and "driver" only used 19 percent of the time.
- Roadway infrastructure was seldom mentioned or cited as a public safety issue.
A quick Google news search of the term "Massachusetts pedestrian accident" provides proof of how object-based language works. For example, these are the headlines that come up:
- Elderly Man Hit While Crossing Natick Street
- Pedestrian struck, killed by car in Sturbridge
- 3 Women Seriously Hurt by Vehicle in Mass. Parking Lot
- Pedestrian struck by vehicle in Woburn
Not once do these titles mention the term "driver," nor do they cite any potential causes (distraction, speeding, drunk driving, etc.)
When an 'accident' is no accident
The authors conclude that journalists should deviate away from the term "accident," and instead, focus on terms such as "crash" and "collision." For example, if a driver who strikes a pedestrian is distracted, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or behaving erratically, then the crash isn't truly an accident. Perhaps an at-fault driver had no intention of causing a crash, but the act of knowingly engaging in reckless and negligent behavior that can lead to a crash is never an accident.
The attorneys at The Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone agree that most crashes with pedestrians and bicyclists are the result of human error, and therefore, preventable. That's why our firm is dedicated to fighting on behalf of injured motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists across Massachusetts. If you or a loved one sustained injuries in a crash, contact us online to speak to our legal team. We can help you explore your legal options and build a solid claim.