Thursday, March 24, 2011

The wrong way to write about traffic deaths

Today's Twin CIties StarTribune has a story about a terrible crash near the airport. Here is how it is described:
An SUV veered into oncoming traffic late Thursday morning on a highway near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, struck another SUV head-on and then hit two more vehicles heading the other way, authorities said. A passenger in the wayward SUV was killed, and eight others were injured.

The wreck occurred shortly after 11:30 a.m. on Hwy. 5, according to the State Patrol.

A Chevy Suburban was heading south on Hwy. 5, crossed the median and collided head-on with a northbound Lincoln Navigator, the patrol said. The Suburban then hit a minivan and a car.

So what is wrong with this, you may ask? In a nutshell, this story--which is typical of traffic deaths--is written as though the vehicles were traveling autonomously. Did the SUV really turn into oncoming traffic? No.* The driver of the SUV did. And I'm not sure what being an SUV has to do with anything.

We should write and speak about tragic crashes accurately. Something happened that caused a driver to swerve across a divider and crash into another vehicle filled with people. It was not the car's fault.** We don't know why the driver drove this way, but they did, and people died because of it. Perhaps if our discourse about traffic crashes and fatalities was more accurate about the actors involved we would have better safety outcomes.

*When traffic fatalities involve cyclists or pedestrians no one ever says that the bicycle or pair of shoes was as fault. With non-motoritzed transport there is always a person.

**Just a reminder that those Toyota crashes last year were largely caused by driver error, not mechanical or software problems.