Newspaper Clippings

18 December 2014

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

One such article is this old classic of a tragic collision, from North East paper “The Journal” (I was reminded of it today by this article in the Evening Standard).

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?

Comments

  1. Neil 18 December 2014 10:01am #

    Great article.

  2. Damian 18 December 2014 11:52am #

    Great read, certainly shows that the way things are written has an influence over peoples concept of what has happened.

  3. D. 18 December 2014 12:13pm #

    “neither Mr Strong, who was not speeding in the 30mph zone, nor Mr Malleson were at fault”, says the coroner – but on the other hand, Mr Strong *really* needs to work out how wide his car is, and learn to look beyond the end of his car’s bonnet. This was not a “tragic accident” but a fatal collision caused by incompetence. IMO.

  4. dr2chase 18 December 2014 12:16pm #

    Double-plus-good parsing.

  5. Edward 18 December 2014 12:30pm #

    Great read. Tragically, neither the reporter nor the police officer probably had any idea they were even doing what you describe.

    • Bez 18 December 2014 12:31pm #

      In most cases I’d agree unblinkingly. This one is just so partisan, though, that I wonder.

  6. samsaundersbristol 18 December 2014 2:55pm #

    Yes. A classic of its type. Many thanks.

    We also have “a moving car” – by that early point in the story we already know that the bike was in some some way associated with a vicar. In the case of the car, human agency has not yet been mentioned, as if referring to a “driver” would be jumping to conclusions best decided by a court.

  7. rdrf 18 December 2014 5:20pm #

    He was not giving him enough room because there was not enough room for him to pass properly where the central reservation was. He was legally and morally required to know that.

    Really, there is nothing else which needs to be said.

    • James 15 January 2015 1:55pm #

      the driver does not ‘give’ the cyclist room at all. He already has all the room he needs. the driver is the one trying to pass, he needs to be sure there is enough room for him to complete the manoeuvre. If as stated he only deviated slightly by hitting the kerb then he was far too close to the cyclist in the first place. Or did he deviate significantly? No mention in the report of what the gap between the parked car and the reservation was so that the reader or coroner(?) could decide if there was ‘enough’ space. The highway code requires drives to give cyclist and horses as much space as a car when overtaking. I would be surprised if two cars could fit side by side between the parked car and the central reservation

  8. Hensteeth 18 December 2014 10:53pm #

    It seems to the cynic in me that the car driver must have been a personal friend of the police officer or the judge or maybe both. Or perhaps they belonged to the same lodge. Unbelievable outcome anyway. Great article though.

  9. Graeme Hilton 19 December 2014 9:13am #

    “[gave] the vicar enough room”

    So much room HE KILLED HIM.

    FFS.

  10. Graeme Hilton 19 December 2014 9:21am #

    Is there a mass conspiracy using Neuro Linguistic Programming through news articles to make us think it’s OK to kill people on cycles?
    The reporting of road “accidents” makes me so angry at times.

  11. Steven Hope 19 December 2014 10:59pm #

    Typically excellent although I’m surprised you missed that he “died from his injuries” which separates his death from the collision. Of course there is a separation in time but his death was caused by injuries sustained in the collision. Creating these stages literally moves the car and the collision away from the death and sanitises it. He didn’t die from “injuries”, he died from being hit by a car.

  12. Andrea 19 December 2014 11:54pm #

    17 is not a foul. On the contrary, it should have been the basis to issue a PFD and reconfigure the road.
    Heaton Road is a straight suburban road with a 50kph speed limit. If legally parked vehicles force people on bikes to swerve out, collisions are inevitable and at 50kph, some are going to be fatal.
    I am not excusing the driver; I am pointing out that probably the road layout is an important contributory factor, and that it is easier to modify than human nature.

    • Schrödinger’s Cat 20 December 2014 3:54am #

      Quite right. If the coroner finds that neither of the two people are involved are at fault, and a death has been caused, then surely they must look to find the cause of the death – which must therefore be the road layout.

      • tassiedi 8 January 2015 12:21pm #

        So when is someone going to sue the council for allowing/ building this dangerous road arrangement?

    • Bez 20 December 2014 8:14am #

      I agree with the several people making the point that if the two parties are deemed to be not at fault then the road must be, but i don’t buy it in this case.

      The explanation was that the driver had seen the cyclist moving across and had already reacted to this. So the road configuration had been accounted for in the actions. The problem was that the wrong decisions were made.

      To be honest, although some road configurations clearly facilitate poor decisions, I still don’t buy the idea that everyone is completely blameless, except in the most exceptional cases. This is not such a case, it is a common and very easily handled configuration.

      By all means look at the road and make it better. That’s a good thing. But here it’s used as an excuse, simple as that.

      • Andrea 20 December 2014 9:35am #

        1. I should have said that I agree with the other 22 fouls
        2. The driver should have been prosecuted for causing death by careless driving.
        3. If we want to go beyond a simple blame game, and try to prevent similar tragedies, we need to design our roads better, not assuming that humans are perfectly rational agents
        4. The police investigator’s statement should be seen not as an attempt to deflect blame, but as a search for improving conditions. That is why the coroner was wrong in not issuing a Prevention of Future Deaths report.

        • Bez 20 December 2014 9:38am #

          Other than (re point 4) that I think people *are*, whether consciously or not, finding excuses not to apportion blame, I agree on all counts 🙂

  13. Dave Holladay 20 December 2014 12:52am #

    Agree with Andrea on the Rule 28 being an essential detail. A Coroner who even as a lay person, has their wits about them would pick up on the Police comment that the presence of parked cars at this point was a causal factor in the chain of events, and that this presence of parked cars was a continuing detail, which to any person reviewing the potential for a repeat of this collision would identify as a matter to be addressed.

    Most fatal crashes arise through the alignment of a number of crucial causal factors – very rarely a single direct cause for what is so often wrongly referred to as an accident.

    There remains a further action to prevent this happening again through the same combination of causal factors, its mandated through Section 39 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1988, with Newcastle City Council is mandated to investigate such crashes (s.39.3.a) and then mandated to tell themselves what action to take to prevent current and future road design and management incorporating such hazards and raised risks (s.39.3.b). I think readers will see the glareing flaw in this legislation, not helped by DfT failing to give any strong guidance on how s.39 should be delivered.

    Newcastle cyclists have requested detail of the Council’s delivery of this mandated (ie required by law) task, and the response is frankly disappointing – a 6th form GCSE project would be more thoroughly produced. The pattern is repeated across the UK.

  14. Schrödinger’s Cat 20 December 2014 3:52am #

    I’d add another foul on:

    “The “scuff” prompted Mr Malleson, who was not wearing a cycle helmet, to lose his balance and fall to the ground.”

    “Prompted”? Surely “caused” would be a better word? The reporter makes it sound like the scuff suggested that Mr Malleson might like to lose his balance, and he chose to do it unilaterally.

  15. Gary Dawes (@gazza_d) 20 December 2014 7:54am #

    Finding it hard to read this post without feeling enough rage to hunt down the reporter in question.

    Regardless of who was to blame for the collision or who had access to what facts and evidence about the incident, the fact that a person who’s profession is to write about the news wrote this about a persons death.

    The article will have then gone though editors before being published.

    Can you imagine them writing in similar tones about a dog being ran over Actually quickly googled and found this “gem” from same paper http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/dog-walker-hit-by-car-4615731 Woman hit & killed on a pedestrian crossing(near me actually) but the dogs were unharmed.

  16. Analogue Andy 20 December 2014 9:07am #

    Well dissected Bez and right on every level.

    Very relevant in the Michael Mason case too (and so many others sadly).

    It would be worth writing a follow-up looking in detail at the justice system, if the police and CPS decide to bring charges then the magistrates or jury still need to convict. To do that they need to be convinced “beyond reasonable doubt” that the “standard of driving” falls “below the standard expected of a competent and careful driver”. They (magistrates and ordinary members of the public as jurors) will think the same as the reporter and PC in this case. They won’t be cyclists. They might think “that could have been me”. They might even think “bloody cyclist, he should have been driving a car. And they don’t pay any Road Tax”.. so many examples of this too..

    I’ve had enough of this world, I want to emigrate to a better place 🙁

  17. Robbie Burns 24 December 2014 10:07am #

    Great piece. Maddening though, cyclists’ lives are cheap.

  18. Donnachadh McCarthy 29 December 2014 7:51am #

    I am sorry but in my view this has an awfully stupid conclusion in an otherwise excellent article on the abuse of language!! 8((

    The bizarre illogical conclusion to oppose mandatory passing space for cars passing cyclists is similar to ACPO’s lethal opposition to 20 mph zones and the vehicular cyclists opposition to cycle lanes!

    If the law had stated that 1.5 meters passing space had been required then this would have made it far harder for the coroner and the police to ignore the law breaking by the motorist.

    The real conclusion should have been twofold – the article provided clear evidence for the need FOR a passing law and secondly demonstrates the terrible problem cyclists have in getting our due legal protection from the law, due to the law being administered almost exclusively by car-drivers, who naturally empathasise almost always with the drivers!

    I confess I am not sure what the answer to the second problem is other than mass demos outside the Met Police or Supreme Court?

    • Bez 29 December 2014 10:41am #

      I disagree. The police are saying here that the driver gave plenty of space. Granted, “plenty of space” is not defined by an actual measurement, but I don’t think that’s actually relevant.

      The point here is that the situation evolved in such a way that “plenty of space” became no space: such is inherently the case in any collision, of course.

      Let’s say there’s a 1.5m passing law. Let’s say also that the driver above left 1.5m of space at the start of the manoeuvre. Does that tick the box? How much space had he left when he bounced off the kerb and into the victim?

      A passing distance law is absolutely useless in my opinion. How do you measure a pass? When do you measure it? How do you record it? How do you give evidence for it? How do you prosecute for it? Are all collisions inherently a violation of the passing distance law? If not, which ones aren’t?

      People aren’t good with measurements. They can’t even figure out a measured speed when they have a needle pointing to it on a panel in front of them. They might look at it, but still often think “well, it’s not actually legal, but it still feels safe, so it’s ok.”

      I can’t see a passing law being any different, other than it’s much, *much* harder to enforce. I think such a law would be a huge waste of time and effort, totally unworkable, a worthless gesture at best.

      I agree that a certain sort of passing law may be a good thing, but I emphatically believe that a passing law based on distance would be a bad thing. I have a half-written post on that very subject, though. I’ll try to finish it.

  19. juliusbeezer 5 January 2015 11:56am #

    Very compelling article: well done.

    >How do you measure a passing distance?

    I’m sorry I can’t find the reference right now, but I’ve seen research published recently (<1yr) in which precisely this was done. IIRC, the experimental bike had some form of radar that measured passing distance; the experimental variable was clothing worn by cyclist (hi-vis/helmet?) and the measured variable was passing distance. So it can be done.

    If society was interested in ensuring that the reprehensible driving behaviour you describe was sanctioned, one could imagine a suitably equipped unmarked police bicycle giving a sample of drivers a well-publicised lesson pour encourager les autres.

    That said, more generalised measures such as 20mph limits–note the lethal 30mph limit in operation in the example you discuss–and strict liability laws governing motor-cycle or motor-pedestrian collisions, would be more effective measures for UK cyclists to campaign for, in my view.

    • Bez 5 January 2015 12:44pm #

      Yes, Ian Walker et al built and used the apparatus to measure the distance.

      But I mean in the context of people cycling on the roads generally. If there’s a 3ft rule and someone passes me at 2ft, they’ve committed an offence but how do I prove it? Even with video cameras front and rear I can’t do so. How do they (or I) even know that it’s 2ft and not 3ft? It’s absolutely unworkable.

      • Dan B 6 January 2015 4:46pm #

        While it might not matter in the 3′ or 2′ scenario, a passing-distance law can act to show that there is fault, and such fault lies with the driver. If you pass someone with “plenty of space” you do not hit them, ever. They probably don’t really notice you. If you require that space to be 1.5m, and a collision happens the driver has demonstrably NOT given ‘plenty of space’ and can be prosecuted for that, whether or not the rider is killed. There’s no need to classify it as careless driving, or dangerous driving.

        • Bez 6 January 2015 5:03pm #

          What if the driver gives 1.5m of space as they pass, the cyclist moves to the right as the car begins to draw alongside, the driver continues forwards, and they collide?

      • James 15 January 2015 2:08pm #

        simple measurement of the space where the collision occurred. 3ft from kerb or parked car to cycle, then 3 ft from cycle to passing car. Is there still a car width before any traffic island?. in this case I suspect not

        • Bez 15 January 2015 2:16pm #

          In this case, perhaps, but that isn’t applicable in general.

  20. tassiedi 8 January 2015 12:26pm #

    Brilliant article.

  21. andrewrh 8 January 2015 3:21pm #

    The crash which has sadly resulted in the 6th person riding a bicyle to be killed this year is noted in the Enfield newspaper with the headline: “Traffic chaos at rush hour”

  22. Phil Fouracre 10 January 2015 11:36am #

    Great, but, depressing article! Had something very similar recently, car overtaking me, despite moving out as there was a traffic island ahead. Car actually came to a stop at the island, physically too close to manoeuvre around it! Amazing how these things ‘spring up’ when you least expect them

  23. westlondoncycling 10 January 2016 12:54pm #

    ‘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.’

    Very well said, terminology used especially in media will influence the reader to think this death was unavoidable when all it took was patience and a better attitude to life.

Leave a Reply to juliusbeezer Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *