Traffic crashes are one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States. Nearly 20% of these fatalities include pedestrians or bicyclists who were hit and killed. The 2022 Dangerous by Design report shows there has been a 62-percent increase in pedestrian fatalities since they began to rise in 2009 following years of improvement. Despite these alarming figures, there has not been a consistent, widespread public call for action to improve road safety.
One potential explanation for the lack of public concern is how these traffic crashes are covered in the media. Research has regularly shown that news coverage affects public attitudes significantly. According to studies, U.S. media outlets frequently use problematic, passive language (for instance, stating that “a bicyclist was struck” rather than “a driver hit a bicyclist”), accuse pedestrians of being at fault before blaming drivers, and portray crashes as unfortunate and isolated incidents rather than as part of a consistent pattern affecting the nation. In addition, many journalists still refer to crashes as “accidents” more than six years after the Associated Press initially cautioned them against doing so, furthering the public’s misconception that traffic fatalities cannot be averted. This method of reporting is likely a factor in the relatively low public outrage around the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists. By slightly changing their reporting, journalists can break these tendencies. Even small adjustments in writing style could boost public pressure to lower traffic fatalities by alerting people to the connections between what at first glance appear to be isolated incidents.
In an effort to publish crash reports as quickly as possible, many busy journalists rely exclusively on police crash reports. Additionally, many police agencies use social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to interact directly with the general public. This means that even if press coverage improved, much of the public would receive inadequate coverage. To improve the public’s experience with information about traffic collisions, it seems sensible to start with the official source, that is, the police press releases.
An innovative pilot study was conducted by Associate Professor Kelcie Ralph, Tara Goddard, Calvin Thigpen, and Raymond Davis to reshape the language of the police press releases that journalists rely on for their coverage. More and more individuals are getting their crash information straight from the police. Therefore, improving the language used in police press releases may have the twofold benefits of improving both news coverage and direct public communications from police departments.
The researchers created a brief training program specifically for police officers, after which they sought the officers’ opinions. Since it was a test initiative, the number of officers offering feedback was small. The police officers were presented with nine recommendations during the training (shown in Figure 1) and were asked for their opinions.
Figure 2 displays the survey’s findings. The majority of participants chose four recommendations which included using object-based language, eliminating the use of the word “accident,” omitting exculpatory quotes from drivers and including details about the crash site.
The researchers amended their suggestions in light of the survey results and conversations with police, legal experts, and media (see the final version here). The following are five crucial recommendations provided by the researchers to improve police press releases:
- Use “crash”, not “accident”: The word “accident” implies that collisions are unavoidable and cannot be prevented.
- Clearly describe the collision: Include a reference to the driver and make them the sentence’s primary subject rather than the person who was hit. The sentence’s focus is often held more accountable for what has occurred. Even when it is not evident who was at fault, pedestrians are the subject of most of the current coverage of traffic collisions (about 75% of the time).
- Carefully consider whether to include descriptions of the individuals walking and biking: Details regarding clothing color, for instance, don’t explain why the crash occurred.
- Exclude statements from drivers avoiding responsibility: Omit the quotes from drivers stating, “I didn’t see them” or “They darted out”. Also, the line “the driver is complying” should be left out. Cooperation with police is required by law and this phrase is not typically included for other types of incidents.
- Specify the pertinent features of the crash site and the road: Consider providing information in the report on the type of roadway, the number of lanes, the posted speed limit, the presence of clear walkways, lighting, etc.
Click here to read the full study.
Ralph, K., Goddard, T., Thigpen, C., Davis, R. (2022). Intervening at the blotter, not the broadcast: Improving crash coverage by targeting police press releases. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Volume 15, 2022. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590198222001294
Wilson, K. (2022). Study Seeks To Get Cops To Write Better Crash Reports. Streetsblog USA. Retrieved from https://usa.streetsblog.org/2022/08/22/study-seeks-to-get-cops-to-write-better-crash-reports/
Goddard, T., Ralph, K., Thigpen, C., Iacobucci, E. (2019). Does news coverage of traffic crashes affect perceived blame and preferred solutions? Evidence from an experiment. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337279845_Does_news_coverage_of_traffic_crashes_affect_perceived_blame_and_preferred_solutions_Evidence_from_an_experiment
Ralph, K. (2020). Opinion: To Save Lives, Let’s Cover Crashes Better. Transfer Magazine. Retrieved from https://transfersmagazine.org/magazine-article/issue-5/opinion-to-save-lives-lets-cover-crashes-better/
Ralph, K., Iacobucci, E., Goddard, T., & Thigpen, C. (2019). Editorial patterns in Bicyclist and Pedestrian Crash Reporting. Transportation Research Record. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0361198119825637?casa_token=69RxMwQMk_MAAAAA:ei1g8oib3jEuyZBk9ABCIxP8oyv4NiCDb8LT-83XsmvtjDtYNvARtWLxFiyVCX3irhE8EBpeLaun