I’ve already covered a number of aspects of the harmful use of language in reporting collisions. But some articles are particularly bad, and demonstrate particular points.
A linguistic tour de force
It’s old news and I only want to focus on one thing: the use of language, by both the reporter and the police constable who made the statement in the report, to sway perception of responsibility in this incident. I’ll count the number of fouls as we go.
A RESPECTED North East vicar died after his bike was clipped by a moving car, an inquest heard.
In the first paragraph alone we have two words that are arguably partisan. Firstly, “clipped” diminishes the collision; it suggests that it’s a minor thing (a minor thing that happens to have been avoidable and fatal). Secondly, “by a moving car” is a common but debatable phrasing. In many cases it’s not a cause for concern and there are some sound arguments for using it, but—as we shall see—this incident is clearly attributable to behaviour, so in this case it slightly reinforces the overall tone.
Fouls so far: 2.
The Rev Michael Malleson, 69, fell head-first on to the road in the accident, which happened on Heaton Road, in Heaton, Newcastle.
Again, two phrases. Firstly, “[he] fell”, which is an active verb, rather than “[he] was knocked“, which is in the passive; it places more agency on the victim. Secondly, “accident” is used in place of “incident” or “collision”, and has connotations of an unforeseeable or unavoidable event.
Fouls so far: 4.
He was rushed to hospital but died two days later from his injuries.
The inquest, at Newcastle’s Civic Centre, heard Mr Malleson was cycling north along Heaton Road when he pulled out to avoid some parked cars.
Malleson “pulled out”. This is a subtle but disingenuous phrase. He did not venture into another lane; did not “pull out” of one defined space into another; he merely moved laterally in the lane where he not only had right of way but also priority over vehicles behind. When a cyclist does this, it is wholly predictable and they are wholly entitled to do so. A shoulder check is wise, but it is not legally required. What is required is for the overtaking road user to perform this manoeuvre safely.
Fouls so far: 5.
Motorist Joseph Strong was driving behind him and saw him pull out, prompting him to pull over to give the vicar enough room.
This is a nice setup here: he “[gave] the vicar enough room”. A reminder, were any needed: there was a collision. This somewhat stretches anyone’s definition of “enough room”.
Fouls so far: 6.
But a central reservation caused the road to narrow, and Mr Strong’s Skoda car clipped the kerb of the reservation as he tried to pass. His car turned slightly towards Mr Malleson, an experienced cyclist, and lightly clipped his handlebars.
Whoa! Whoa! Slow down there, I can’t keep up.
“A central reservation caused the road to narrow”—a bewildering phrase. It’s as if the highway, its furniture imbued with agency by this statement, was shifting around while the protagonists used it. This is nonsense: nothing changed. A pass was attempted at a manifestly dangerous point.
“[The] car clipped the kerb”—caused wholly by the driver, but that’s ignored. “[The] car turned”—removing agency from the driver—and did so “slightly”—diminishing the action. Then it’s diminished further: the car only “clipped”—rather than “struck”—the bike, and even did so “lightly”. (Maybe the reporter seems to have access to the sort of evidence the police could only dream of having, or maybe they’re completely making it up; you decide.)
Fouls so far: 12.
The “scuff” prompted Mr Malleson, who was not wearing a cycle helmet, to lose his balance and fall to the ground.
Just a “scuff”: further diminishment. Then (get your bingo cards out, folks) it’s the old “who was not wearing a helmet” non-sequitur. A fact it may be, but it stinks when it’s dropped in at a point such as this. Then, the victim “[lost] his balance and [fell] to the ground”; two verbs in the active voice, giving the victim agency: he wasn’t knocked off, he lost his balance; he wasn’t pushed, he fell. He did these things.
Fouls so far: 16.
The grandfather-of-three suffered serious head injuries and was taken to Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, where he died two days later on December 2.
PC Stuart Cockburn told the hearing he was concerned by cars being allowed to park where the road narrows.
What? That’s the message? Parked cars are the problem? That’s a whole blog post in itself, but the article scores a foul for setting this up as the cause of, or excuse for, the killing.
Fouls so far: 17.
… PC Cockburn told the inquest: “This has been a tragic accident where Mr Strong has observed Rev Malleson ahead of him. He observed Rev Malleson had to move out in the carriageway to overtake the parked cars and he decided to give him plenty of room.
Here, the PC commits the same fouls as the reporter: it’s not a “serious collision” but “a tragic accident”. The driver’s actions—again, a reminder: this resulted in a fatality—are lauded: he “observed” the victim and “decided to give him plenty of room”.
Fouls so far: 20.
“Unfortunately, Mr Strong’s wheel hit the kerb of the reservation and it caused the car to go slightly to the left as Rev Malleson was coming slightly to the right.
With the use of “unfortunately”, the whole incident is dismissed as a matter of fortune, not of a dangerous decision put into action. And there again, not once but twice: “slightly”.
Fouls so far: 22.
“That’s caused the two of them to come together and the car has scuffed Rev Mallesons’s handlebars.”
“Scuffed”. Not “struck”, just “scuffed”. Like when you scuff the knees of your trousers, which—as we all know—often results in the death of someone.
Fouls so far: 23.
… Returning a verdict of accidental death, coroner David Mitford said neither Mr Strong, who was not speeding in the 30mph zone, nor Mr Malleson were at fault.
A truly baffling decision: it’s not your fault if you decide to attempt to overtake someone at a pinch point, crash into the kerb, and then crash into the person you’re trying to overtake and kill them. Despite the rage I feel every time I read this statement, it’s not a linguistic foul, so let’s sigh and move on.
Language makes laws fail
The language in this article is truly shocking. Between the reporter and the police constable, I find around 23 linguistic devices that all diminish the responsibility of the driver, with some going further still. And the article is entirely unilateral in its partiality (unless you take the phrase “experienced cyclist” to work in the victim’s favour, but that’s the only phrase which arguably does so).
If nothing else, it illustrates perfectly one of the several reasons why a “minimum passing distance” law is highly unlikely to have any effect: the insistence that the driver left “plenty of space” is repeated earnestly, with no regard for the fact that this ended with a fatal collision.
If this—a fatal collision—is what passing with “plenty of space” is, what possible use is a law that mandates space?