‘It’s not an accident’: reporting on road collisions

‘It’s not an accident’: reporting on road collisions

By Andy Chivers

In those far off days before COVID struck, when Cyclox used to hold stalls at fairs and festivals (Headington, Jericho, Florence Park) one of the recurring themes was ‘I would cycle but it is too dangerous’. Another was ‘I’m not fit enough to ride a bike’. Neither are true, but perception is powerful. 

The media reports collisions involving bikes knowing they are of interest to their audience. We read and hear about collisions at the Plain and many other roads in Oxford and Oxfordshire. People who already cycle have their own experience and pleasure to counterbalance the anxieties these reports create, but people who don’t cycle remember them, which reinforces their concerns.

The Plain is the source of lots of incidents between bike riders and car drivers, perhaps not surprisingly as thousands of bikes and cars go round it every day. It looks scary to someone who doesn’t cycle. The alterations made several years ago were intended to increase cycle numbers by 20%, which hasn’t happened. But reports of collisions there will rarely mention how many cyclists pass through safely every day; statistically, a cyclist is killed about every 1-2 million miles, which would take most of us about a thousand years to ride.

We often hear the word ‘accident’ applied to crashes, but the word accident needs to be consigned to history: ‘collision’ is preferable, since ‘accident’ suggests something that is unavoidable. Most collisions are not accidental, being due to excess speed, or someone being distracted. We encourage and expect cyclists to obey the Highway Code, but extra responsibility has to be taken by those in charge of faster, heavier vehicles to anticipate situations which put less protected people are at risk (see our Rights and Responsibilities leaflet). In many European countries ‘presumed liability’ recognises this responsibility in law; the presumption is that the cyclist or pedestrian is not at fault and the onus is on the driver of the motor vehicle to prove otherwise. 

The negative perceptions of cycling can be heightened by the language used by reporters. A recent report – Media Guidelines for Reporting Road Collisions – by Laura Laker at the University of Westminster advises journalists to think carefully when reporting crashes, for example, it is misleading to say ‘a cyclist hit by a car’ when it was the driver who was responsible, not the car. A better way to report this is to say ‘cyclist hit by driver of car’.  

Another example is describing the clothes that cyclist wear, or their lack of protective gear. Reporting that a cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet, or hi-viz gives people the impression that some responsibility, or blame, for the crash lies with the rider. Conversations with drivers often refer to this expectation; a revealing quote: ‘I saw a cyclist on the road and I couldn’t see them at all’.

We know that reporters want to create a sense of heightened tension, but using words like ‘battle’ or ‘war’ to describe conditions on the road is likely to encourage more aggressive behaviour.

Language is important and to get more people cycling, reporters have an important contribution in using words in a way that helps reduce the perception that cycling is dangerous and cyclists are to blame for collisions. 

For more info visit the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines website.

Photo by Tejvan Pettinger.


One Response

  1. Kit Thompson says:

    Thanks for this Andy. A particular bête noir for me is the regular use of “accident” and like you I (as a member of the IAM also) believe they are very rarely accidents. I write to the Guardian and BBC style guide people for all the good it does me. Drip. Drip

    Kit Thompson

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