When Words Collide

25 November 2014

Language is a funny old thing: it can be beautiful yet brutal; trivial yet pivotal. At the very least, it’s always a product of the author’s thoughts: a symptom of an attitude; a barometer of a mindset. But—more than that—whether subtle or strident, malign or mendacious, it remains our main tool of influence. What you say, what you write, is important.

But sometimes, it’s a car crash.

Let’s take a look at it, pull it apart, see if it needs fixing, and then put it back together.

The facts of the matter

There are two key facts that need to be borne in mind.

The first is that inanimate objects do not generate actions. People do things; vehicles merely respond; street furniture merely exists.

The second is that reporters are, quite rightly, not free to imply legal blame. Only the legal process can do that, and a reporter is obliged not to prejudice the case. (I’m not a reporter, but I can direct you to a thoughtful piece on this matter written by one.)

In some cases, it is easy to phrase things in a way that recognises both of those points. For others, it can be less straightforward.

However, reporters often—understandably, perhaps—overlook the former in favour of the latter where there is no conflict.

The driverless vehicle

Often, reporting adopts the “driverless vehicle” style. Consider this report from the Evening Standard (which has been significantly changed since I wrote this); I’ve highlighted some phrases below and then replaced them in the version on the right (click for a larger image).

car-vs-driver-small

The key changes are these:

  • If any racing was being done, it was the driver of the vehicle racing; the vehicle was being raced.
  • The racing wasn’t against another vehicle; it was against another driver.
  • The vehicle didn’t fail to stop; the driver failed to stop the vehicle.

(Of course, in extremely rare cases vehicles can fail to stop, if the brake is applied and they fail to work; but such an event is usually followed by a second collision in which the vehicle does succeed in stopping, when it hits some other inanimate object. No mention of that here.)

I don’t think any of these changes go beyond simple reporting of the facts, and so they don’t push the report into potential lawsuit territory.

Police reports

It’s not only journalists who adopt the driverless vehicle style: the police do it too. And since journalists usually work directly from police reports, they’re guided pretty strongly by the phrasing in those.

For example, googling for the phrase “failed to stop” on police sites brings back a first page which (ignoring FAQs and guidance) contains five reports about drivers that failed to stop and eleven reports about vehicles that failed to stop (plus one which uses both styles). It’s a representative sample: the majority—including the report for the incident covered in the Standard—give agency to the vehicle.

Is implying blame acceptable?

Sometimes things go to a bizarre extreme. Consider this report from the Coventry Telegraph:

A cyclist is ‘seriously ill’ in hospital this Sunday after the bike he was riding crashed with a van in Coventry. The man was riding the push-bike on the A45 Birmingham Road when he collided with a van outside the Windmill Pub in Allesley.

There’s stark confusion as to whether the rider or the bike was the active protagonist, but it seems fairly clear here that the cyclist rode into the van.

The report continues,

Crew commander Rob Smith, of Canley station, said…“We don’t know the cause but he was struck by the van from behind.”

Oh. So, not the incident that the earlier phrases suggested.

Now, one assumes the cyclist didn’t reverse into a van with sufficient speed to become trapped beneath it; I think it’s fair to surmise that the collision occurred as a result of the van travelling faster than the bicycle and hitting it from behind. It seems disingenuous, to put it mildly, to say of the cyclist that “he collided with the van”.

A cynic might be of the opinion that any legal case arising from this is likely to be conducted in such a way that prejudicing the driver would be problematic but prejudicing the cyclist wouldn’t, so it’s far easier to get away with implying blame in this way than it is the other. But let’s set cynicism aside for now.

An I-Spy guide to poor phrasing

In lieu of a style guide, let’s take a look at some common phrases and see how they could be improved.

“The vehicle failed to stop.”

Examples: “Car fails to stop after collision”, “Car failed to stop before it hit a roundabout”.

A straightforward misrepresentation unless an input was applied and mechanical failure occurred. Suggestion: “The driver failed to stop.”

“The vehicle lost control.”

Examples: “A car lost control”, “A car went out of control and wrecked a traffic light pole”.

Again, a clear misrepresentation: the vehicle is controlled by its driver. Suggestion: “The driver lost control [of the vehicle].”

“X collided with Y”

Examples: “The boy collided with a scooter”, “A pedestrian collided with a minicab”.

A complex phrase because it could be inferred that X contributed more greatly to the event than Y. However, in some cases (such as a cyclist being rear-ended by a driver on an open road) it is arguably merely representative of the physics. But, really, when it goes as far as saying that a pedestrian collided with a moving car, it should be pretty obvious that it’s unreasonable. Suggestions: “X and Y were involved in a collision;” “a collision occurred between X and Y;” or even “Y collided with X”.

“The vehicle overturned”

Examples: “Man taken to hospital after car overturns”, “Road closed after car overturns”.

Again, complex, because this one depends on context. As part of a chain of events, it’s a reasonable statement of fact; in isolation, it can border on the absurd.

“The vehicle crashed”

Examples: “Car crashes into tree”, “Car crashes into war memorial”.

Similarly influenced by context, but—other than exceptional cases like handbrakes that become ineffective while parked—it’s people who crash vehicles. Suggestion: “The driver crashed [the vehicle].”

Prejudice

I’m sure there are plenty more phrases (ideas in the comments, please; I’ll try to add them) but hopefully the issue is sufficiently illustrated.

Inanimate objects do not do things. People do things. People cause things. Sit watching the CCTV for any car park and you’ll not see anything happen until people get in the cars. Leave a car as long as you like and it won’t collide with a person, overturn, lose control (nor indeed acquire it), or anything. It’ll just sit there until someone comes along, starts it up, and drives it.

No matter how acute the fear of falsely implying blame, to recognise that vehicles are not capable of action is merely to report fact. There is no implication of blame in the matter-of-fact statement of someone’s actions.

Every time a report ascribes an action or some responsibility to a vehicle (or—to an almost equally complete degree—to the weather, a pothole, or so on) it reinforces the societal acceptance of road danger.

Every time a car has agency, we hamper our own ability to address the problem.

Language is important. Responsibility is important. Feel what you will about blame, but there is no justification for offloading any agency onto vehicles.

The irony is that the phrasing results from the fear that it might prejudice a legal case.

Because that’s precisely what it does.

 

Comments

  1. Lyn 25 November 2014 1:31pm #

    Excellent article.

  2. andrewrh 25 November 2014 2:20pm #

    A very handy set of suggestions that I will refer journalists to!

    Not to be forgotten are ‘traffic reports’ on radio stations — see Katja Leyendecker’s (@katsdekker) 2012 article on that. She subsequently wrote and then tweeted about #driverless car reports:
    http://katsdekker.blogspot.de/2012/05/driverless-carneeds-nappy-change.html

    One more word that irks: ‘accident’ instead of ‘crash’ or ‘collision’. See the RoadPeace campaign on that here:
    http://www.roadpeace.org/campaigns/crash/

    The movie ‘Hot Fuzz’ also makes a comment on ‘accident’:
    http://youtu.be/puK5CwThaq4

    ~Andrew~

  3. Ian Duke 25 November 2014 2:47pm #

    I’ve reblogged this as I think your well put and unarguable points deserve as much circulation as they can get. Well done.

  4. paulc 25 November 2014 3:46pm #

    “Leave a car as long as you like and it won’t lose control, overturn, collide with a person, or anything.”

    Not strictly true… my car rolled down a very shallow slope in a car park and collided with another car when the handbrake cable failed.

    • Bez 25 November 2014 3:47pm #

      Careful readers will note that I mentioned failing handbrakes as a specific example of an exception earlier in the article 😉

    • platinum 25 November 2014 8:08pm #

      You’re still to blame for 1) inadequate maintenance and b) when parking on hill turn the steering wheel and rest your wheel up against the kerb like a chock, and then leave it in gear. This is Basic Stuff – Highway Code rule 252.

  5. Vasco Soeiro 26 November 2014 6:20pm #

    very briefly, and not able to find the links, I can remember, here in Portugal, an aqueduct being too narrow and thus “provoking” and accident (after a car crashed against one of its pillars, of course), even thought it has been still for more than 2.000 years (having been built by the romans), and a junction being too dangerous (maybe it moves itself from time to time, causing crashes…)

  6. The noctivagant cyclist 26 November 2014 7:15pm #

    Excellent article. But I can’t agree with your views on “collide”!

    “The verb collide has roots in the Latin word collidere, which comes from col- or “together” and laedere, “to strike or damage,” like planes that collide in midair.”
    There is no implication of blame, or aggresor – “X collided with Y” means the same as “Y collided with X”. It’s all about the “col” and the “with”.

    Consider “I danced with my wife”. reverse the nouns and it means the same. There isn’t even any implication of who was leading!

    See also http://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/co-

    (My experience is that 90% of online cyclists agree with you, but I don’t know why… )

    • Bez 26 November 2014 7:55pm #

      Point taken, but of course language evolves. A word’s etymology provides a lot of insight, but doesn’t necessarily reflect its contemporary meaning, and certainly doesn’t dictate them; much less so its connotations.

      I think the argument is perhaps best made by example. Consider the following statements:

      The buffers collided with the train.
      His face collided with my fist.
      The wall collided with the van.

      All of these sound at best odd, and at worst downright wrong. One of them even appears in a Not The Nine O’ Clock News sketch as a joke, such is its apparent absurdity.

      Like it or not, for the overwhelming majority of people, “X collided with Y” has—at least—connotations of X being the more influential actor in the event, no matter what its meaning and connotations were in Roman times.

  7. Humpo 28 November 2014 12:46pm #

    It’s a contrast to the approach of the NRA in the US “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.
    When Dick Cheney shot someone a few years back I didn’t see any versions of the story along the lines of
    “Harry Whittington was injured when he was accidentally shot by a gun during a quail hunt. The owner of the gun, Dick Cheney, was interviewed by the Kennedy County Sherrif’s department…”

  8. Ed 28 November 2014 12:46pm #

    Good blog. I think you missed a point in “X COLLIDED WITH Y” about the fact that it is always reported as a “person (e.g. child, cyclist) collided with an object (e.g. car, van)” which implies blame on the person (usually the victim) as an object cannot take blame.

    Perhaps instead it should be reported as “an object collided with another object” e.g. a bike collided with a van, or “an object operated by a person collided with a person” e.g. a van operated by a driver collided with a child.

    • Bez 28 November 2014 1:00pm #

      That’s a point that’s often made and there’s some truth in it. But the collision occurs between the motor vehicle and the cyclist (plus, admittedly, the bicycle). I think “a van collided with a bike” rather suggests an unmanned bike lying in the road, whilst “a van operated by a driver collided with a child” is just too cumbersome to be a reasonable phrasing.

  9. Einar Støp-Bowitz 3 December 2014 10:10pm #

    I have been writing about driverless cars gone wild for years. It seems nobody gets the point. A common term in norwegian papers : A car crashed into a wall. The person who sat in the car was seriously injured. The police has not yet established what caused the crash. It is usually a cyclist who is the victim. No wonder, a bicycle wheighs max 15 kg, a motorvehicle wheighs a ton. A bicycle can do absolutely nothing on its own, not even stand upright. Most important: a bicycle represents a capital of max NOK 10000, a car represents a capital of NOK 500000. Of course the driver of a car needs not to be blamed. When you get a drivers licence, you swear always to be in full control of your vehicle! Whenever you fail to do so, it is only you to blame, and you should not keep your drivers licence.

  10. Stephen Taylor FRSA 19 December 2014 11:08am #

    Would you care to collaborate on a Guide to Reporting Road Collisions? I’m thinking it should be sponsored by CTC, RoadJustice, RoadSafe, LCC and The Times? A campaign could then be run to press media editors to accept it. That would provide a formal basis for campaigners to make a nuisance of ourselves when reporters stray. What do you think?

    • Bez 19 December 2014 11:14am #

      Happy to lob my opinions in if you want them…

      • Stephen Taylor FRSA 19 December 2014 11:25am #

        Magic. I’ll canvass a bit for sponsors and get back to you.

      • Stephen Taylor FRSA 27 July 2015 12:30pm #

        CTC has asked me for a draft, with a view to promoting national reporting guidelines along the lines I proposed here. I have written one, after re-reading several of your lucid posts.

        I’d like to send the draft to you for comment or revision. Could you send a message to sjt@5jt.com? I’ll then reply with the draft.

  11. Shivaji Shiva 5 June 2015 11:01am #

    Hi Stephen, Bez

    I have just spotted your idea for a Guide to Reporting Road Collisions and would be interested to know how you plan to take this forward.

    I gather that the Cyclists’ Defence Fund has not yet been canvassed but I think that the trustees would be interested in the idea.

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