Tom Vanderbilt has been harping a lot lately on the use of the word “accident” to describe traffic collisions. He’s also commenting a lot, lately, on the use of passive voice in news reports about traffic collisions. For example, “Joe Blow was killed when a car crossed the center line and struck him head on.” There’s little indication that the inanimate car was controlled by a driver.
A local (to me) example is the reporting after Santa Clara County Sheriff Deputy James Council drove his car into cyclists Matt Peterson and Kristy Gough last year. KTVU describes the collision thusly: “A rookie Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy whose patrol car swerved into a group of cyclists on a training ride, killing them….” The article happens to be on the deputy’s history of drunk driving, but there’s no indication in the lead sentence that the deputy was the one who actually driving his car — it was the patrol car that swerved into the cyclists.
The San Jose Mercury News did even worse when they maddengly printed, “The group collided with the deputy’s car” when describing the accident, although the cyclists were riding lawfully on their side of the rode and it was the deputy who drifted over the line into oncoming traffic.
The San Francisco Chronicle did a better job assigning agency to the driver of the vehicle: “ A rookie Santa Clara County deputy sheriff patrolling a winding Cupertino road Sunday morning veered into the opposite lane of traffic and struck three bicyclists, killing two.“
Vanderbilt asks questions one why journalists use the passive voice so much in their traffic reporting.
I am frankly not sure why we are so afraid to assign responsibility in car crashes. Is it that we view traffic violations in general as “folk crimes,” not quite “real” crimes? Is it the “there for the grace of God” argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of “a car that strikes a pedestrian”? I sometimes hear the argument made, ‘well that driver will suffer the rest of his life for what he did’; maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s not provable, not quantifiable. Prison time is.
Tom asks some important questions in my opinion.