Does The Media Blame the Victim in Bike Crashes?

Does The Media Blame the Victim in Bike Crashes? Photo Credit: Shutterstock Photo by Shutterstock

The way that we talk about bike collisions matters. It particularly matters how those with a voice of authority discuss bike collisions, because their opinions, whether they are an individual, government institution, or media company, have the greatest impact on the general population's opinion regarding cyclists. And opinions shape laws. Even more importantly, opinions—or negative biases—shape how drivers treat cyclists on the road. The more negatively cyclists are portrayed in the media, the more dangerous it becomes for them out on the streets.

Sadly, many bike crashes are not covered in a fair or accurate manner. They often point blame at the cyclist from the very beginning, even when the facts of the case are so fresh that the victim is still fighting for their life in the operating room, and a crash investigation has yet to take place.

Calling a Bike Crash an "Accident" is The Root of the Problem

Even the term "bike accident" or "car accident" is often misleading when we are talking about traffic collisions, because an accident is defined as "an unforeseen and unexpected event." As such, it is inaccurate to conclude that getting into a car wreck would be unforeseen or unexpected if the driver was going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, was tailgating on the highway, or was changing lanes rapidly and without warning in order to get to their destination a few seconds sooner. To the public, "accident" often connotes "unavoidable accident" or an outcome without fault.

Crashes are caused by careless, dangerous driving, and therefore traffic collisions are almost always foreseen and expected when speeding, exhibiting road rage, texting, and with other irresponsible driving behaviors. The same is true of bike vs. car crashes. There are no accidents when a driver hits a cyclist from behind in the bike lane, cuts them off at an intersection, opens a door directly into their path, or clips their front wheel during a right hook. Calling a bike crash a "bike accident" is the first misstep that most news articles make when reporting on such matters, and it immediately directs blame away from the driver by insinuating that the "accident" was an unavoidable act of God.

Picking Apart the Cyclist From the Get-Go

The second error that many news articles make regarding bike collisions is pointing out all the "wrong" things that the cyclist was doing leading up to the collision, such as not wearing a helmet, riding without bright or reflective clothing (even if the crash occurred in broad daylight), or riding at a high speed (even if the cyclist was going under the posted speed limit). Other ways in which a journalist might undermine a bike crash victim include pointing out how old they were, or how young they were, or that they were new to the area and unfamiliar with the roads, as if any of these characterizations somehow reduce the driver's fault or liability.

Pointing Out That The Driver Was Sober and Did Not Flee The Scene

The bar for good driving behavior, in the eyes of many journalists, is set so low that not committing a felony is seemingly evidence of innocence. For example, in virtually every local news story covering a bike vs. car collision, the reporter will go out of their way to bring the following to the reader's attention (assuming the following circumstances are true):

  1. The driver stayed at the scene
  2. The driver cooperated with police
  3. The driver was not suspected of being under the influence of alcohol or drugs

This type of reporting instantly creates the impression that the driver is an upstanding citizen, as if not driving drunk and not fleeing the scene are two examples of impeccable moral behavior. The news article might as well point out other unrelated and irrelevant qualities of the driver as well, such as paying their taxes on time, or the fact that they have never been found guilty of murder. While telling the reader that the driver stayed at the scene and talked with the police may seem like a simple recounting of the facts, it is painting a subconscious picture in the reader's mind that the driver is the innocent party (not the cyclist), because the "only" form of negligent driving involves commiting hit and runs or drunk driving.

Passive Language Has No Place in Traffic Violence

Our language discussing traffic collisions in the United States is a far cry from how we discuss other forms of violent and deadly crimes, such as assault, rape, and homicide. Instead of a cyclist being "killed by a driver," a journalist will write that a cyclist was "killed by a vehicle" or, more often than not, "stuck by a vehicle." Instead of writing, "the cyclist, who was in the bike lane at the time of the crash, was hit by a person driving a car," a journalist might write, "the bicycle collided with the vehicle," which not only leaves out the fact that the cyclist was in the bike lane, but uses the passive "collided with" instead of the active "struck by." If this type of passive use of language was written by a layperson without a degree in journalism or English, it might be forgiven. But journalists understand the difference between passive and active writing. They know better. They know that passive writing is poor writing because it is unclear, misleading, and inaccurate—all things that a news article is supposed to steer clear of.

Media language does not stop at passivity. It is also common for journalists to describe human beings as objects. Many news articles use the word "bike," or "bicycle" instead of "cyclist" or "63-year-old-man." This dehumanizes the victim, who is a real person, not a bike. For example, a common description of a bike vs. car crash might read, "The bike was hit by a vehicle traveling west bound on 23rd and Elm St. at 9:15 a.m." Unfortunately, this type of language, which makes the reader unconcerned about the cyclist's well-being, is not just common, it is the norm.

Why Does the Media Do Such a Poor Job Covering Bike Crashes?

Victim blaming probably doesn't happen intentionally, at least in most cases, but it is extremely common when the victim is a cyclist. Why? Why does the media do such a poor job reporting on bike collisions? According to Slate, it might be as simple as understaffing—"cops and courts" reporting positions are understaffed and underfunded, which means that most reporters never even make it to the scene of the crash/crime; they simply regurgitate the police report, which they receive via email or a quick phone call. All that ends up making it into the paper are a few key facts: the driver didn't flee, the victim was a cyclist, and the cyclist was not wearing a helmet. These might be relevant in a police report, but they do not tell the public what happened, how the crash occurred, or anything else of true importance, such as the horrific transportation system that we have created for ourselves. Somehow, the fact that 40,000 to 50,000 Americans die on the road every year is seen as just the cost of doing business. We have become numb to traffic violence, as reflected in the reporting of serious traffic collisions.

However, there is likely more to bad bike collision reporting than just disinterest among readers, understaffing, and sloppy writing. There runs a deep, ingrained bias in our country against anyone who chooses to use the roads for purposes other than operating a motor vehicle. Pedestrians and cyclists are often seen as lesser beings ("They shouldn't have been in the road in the first place!"), and their lives are therefore viewed as less important when they are taken. This bias is often held by journalists, as well as drivers, because journalists are usually drivers, too.

Call Colorado Bicycle Crash Injury Attorney Brad Tucker Today

When a cyclist gets struck and seriously injured, or killed, by an aggressive driver, the media will likely report on it in a negative manner, further biasing the public against cyclists, making another such collision even more likely. If we could end this vicious cycle, we would. In fact, here at Colorado Bike Law, we are heavily invested in making Colorado safer for cyclists and other vulnerable road users. But if you were injured by a careless, aggressive, drunk, or otherwise negligent driver, you also have the right to seek compensation by filing a personal injury claim. Call Brad Tucker at Colorado Bike Law today at 303.694.9300 to schedule a free consultation.