Reporting of Traffic Crashes

10th January 2021

Journalist, by Esther Vargas, Licence CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently contacted the BBC about the headline of this article: Erdington Murder Probe after Man 'Deliberately' Driven at by Car.

I suggested to them that it would be better to make clear that a person was driving, rather assigning blame to the vehicle. The wording of the headline could have a psychological effect, and contribute to the situation in the UK where road violence is not taken seriously enough, and is regarded as inevitable and a fact of life.

I asked them, would they write a headline saying that a knife stabbed someone, a baseball bat hit someone over the head, or a gun shot someone? Why should it be different when a car is the weapon?

The BBC didn't understand the point I was making; instead, they answered questions I didn't raise. They said they didn't think anyone would be misled into believing it was a self-driving car. It is frustrating when someone attributes daft arguments to you, then answers them.

As a result, I looked into this in more depth, and here are the results.


A StreetsBlogUSA article explains the relevant points.

It reports academic researchers' findings that '…the framing of articles greatly affects public perceptions of vehicle violence...A team of researchers found that even subtle differences in how an article is framed greatly affects readers' interpretation of crashes and their attitudes toward policy...Seemingly trivial editorial differences have been shown to influence how readers make sense of a story.'

The first of the recommendations noted in the article is: 'Avoid non-agentive, object-based language.' That means avoid the language used in the BBC headline, where it was the car that did it, not a person.

Frontiers in Psychology

The idea of agency is explained in a Frontiers in Psychology article.

'In language, one finds pervasive and systematic ways of construing and interpreting the world. Patterns in everyday descriptions (e.g., whether someone says “He shattered the crystal” or “The crystal shattered”) may serve as pervasive and powerful cues to agency.'

'For example, English speakers who read a report about Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction containing the agentive expression “tore the bodice” not only blamed Timberlake more, but also levied 53% more in fines for the offense than those who read the non-agentive “the bodice tore.” The linguistic framing had a big effect on blame and punishment even when people watched a video of the event and were able to witness the tearing with their own eyes.'

Road Collision Reporting Guidelines in the UK

In the UK, Laura Laker and Martin Porter QC have recently argued that 'language and accuracy matter, and too often reporting contributes to making the roads less safe'.

They have contributed to suggestions for Road Collision Reporting Guidelines.

Martin Porter QC says: 'Reporting Guidelines for journalism about road traffic crashes and criminal offences committed on our roads are long overdue and of vital importance. Language matters. The language of journalists, with any accompanying prejudices and assumptions, are so easily imported into the attitudes of road users and into our criminal and civil justice systems.'

'It may seem harmless to speak of vehicles speeding, running lights or running people down, thereby implying no human responsibility...but the knock on effects contribute to increased danger on our roads and to failings throughout the justice system.'

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