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'Car Accident' Or 'Traffic Violence'? The Way We Talk About Crashes Is Evolving

A Los Angeles traffic officer walks past a body on the street at the scene of a fatal crash in this July 2014 file photo. (Nick Ut/AP)

When cars hit something, or someone, it's often described as an "accident." Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore used that term just this week while speaking to the press about traffic fatalities in 2019, which are virtually unchanged from 2018 — and may end up exceeding the number of deaths from the previous year, according to the preliminary city data.

Not including the last 10 days of 2019, 239 people died in traffic crashes in the city of L.A. last year, the data shows. More than half of those victims, about 131 people, were pedestrians struck by drivers.

Nineteen cyclists were struck and killed by cars last year, down slightly from 21 over the same period of time from last year. The number of people seriously injured by cars while walking or biking is also slightly higher than last year, according to police reporting data.

The latest figures don't account for injuries or deaths that occurred from Dec. 22 through 31, including a 47-year-old woman who was struck and killed by a driver in the neighborhood of Highland Park earlier this week.

As the death toll remains steadily high for people not driving in cars, safety advocates have been pushing to remove "accident" from our traffic vocabulary. Now science is taking a closer look at the way we talk about car crashes and how that language influences our perceptions of blame — especially when someone driving a car hits someone walking or biking.

Some street safety advocates have adopted the term "traffic violence" when describing car-related collisions, particularly when a pedestrian or cyclist is injured or killed.

Their basic argument is that longtime use of the word "accident" minimizes the prevalence and seriousness, and creates a perception block about who is responsible when a driver kills someone with their car. The word "accident" suggests nothing could have been done to predict or prevent the collision.

"When you say the word 'accidents', you make it sound like it couldn't have been avoided," said John Yi, who leads the street safety advocacy group Los Angeles Walks. "It's important to really change that kind of vocabulary so people don't get confused and think these things just happen and this is just a cost we pay living... in a society where we use cars."

And new research found that changing that language does impact people's understanding of car crashes, who's to blame, and what to do to make streets safer.

A new study published in the journal Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives found that "even relatively subtle differences" in how pedestrian traffic collisions are reported "significantly affected readers' interpretation of both what happened and what to do about it..."

REPETITION AND LACK OF CONTEXT

The language may be evolving, but "accident" still has deep roots, and wide reach, in our lexicon, in no small part because many public safety agencies, particularly police officials, still regularly use it to describe car crashes — even in discussing DUI suspects.

But as Madeline Brozen, deputy director of UCLA's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, explained, news outlets also share in that responsibility.

"The big way that most people consume information about crashes is through the media," she said. "It's really important to focus on how media frames these incidents and... that is reflective of, typically, the police reporting that's happening at the scene."

When a 4-year-old girl was killed by a driver while crossing a Koreatown street with her mother in a crosswalk in October, LAPD officials deemed it "an unfortunate accident" while speaking to LAist, and used similar language with other outlets. Soon local TV reporters were live at the scene of what they told viewers was a very terrible, tragic accident.

But in L.A., the majority of the "accidents" that kill or severely injure pedestrians happen on a 6% portion of city streets, known as the High-Injury Network. About 70% of serious and deadly car-pedestrian collisions happen there, including that young girl's death.

But, as was the case in the Koreatown crash, that key context often goes unreported in news coverage of fatal collisions. Often these incidents are presented as singular, random tragedies.

"'Accident' sort of absolves the driver — and the person who designed the street and law enforcement and anybody who's responsible for keeping that street safe — of any responsibility," said Joe Linton, editor for Streetsblog's L.A. site.

If we know where the majority of pedestrian deaths are happening in a city that operates from a stance that "reducing vehicle speed is fundamental" to saving those lives, what impact should that have on how we perceive fault and intention? That's the dissonant, murky space we're wading through.

The Associated Press, which informs the editorial standard for many news outlets, addressed the issue with "accident" in 2016, advising journalists to avoid the word because it "can be read as exonerating the person responsible" in a crash. Still, "accident" regularly shows up in news reporting of fatal collisions.

'WINDSHIELD JOURNALISM' AND EXPLOITING THE POWER OF THE PRESS

A woman walks her dog in downtown Los Angeles. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Linton and other safety advocates accuse media outlets of "windshield journalism," which he described as news coverage where "the only concern stated is whether it's good for [other] drivers" — for example: a fatal pedestrian crash that causes a "traffic headache" for drivers.

In the reporting and retelling, framing is "most often in terms of impact to drivers," Linton said, calling the language "irresponsible."

Why do we talk about crashes like this? It didn't happen by accident.

You may know the history of how early carmakers turned "jaywalking" — a term initially meant to shame pedestrians out of the street — into an actual crime. But the emerging auto industry also had a hand in influencing how the public perceived fatal collisions.

A graph from the "National Journal of Insurance" published in 1924. (Courtesy Peter Norton; MIT Press)

In the early days of the automobile, reckless drivers were killing pedestrians, mostly women and children, at alarming rates. Newspaper coverage in the 1910s and '20s painted drivers as "remorseless murderers" and angry mobs reportedly dragged drivers involved in fatal collisions from their cars.

So the industry went into damage control, with one national auto industry group even creating a free wire service for newspapers, which incentivized reporters to send in basic details of a traffic collision in return for a full, ready-to-publish article. What a thoughtful convenience! Except, unsurprisingly, the narrative in those articles largely shifted the blame to pedestrians and used the term "accident" to describe crashes, which helped embed the term in the minds of news readers across the nation.

In the face of the rising death toll, a 1926 editorial in The New Republic titled "The Murderous Motor" proclaimed: "...much of the present waste of life is inevitable and will continue no matter what preventive measures are taken."

Imagine if outlets today were publishing stories about data privacy from a free wire service run by Facebook, Google or Uber. That's essentially the ethical breach many newspapers allowed back in the '20s and '30s — and the echoes and effects can still be seen in news stories today.

The auto industry exploited the power of the press because its leaders understood that language and perspective (and growing ad revenue) can shift culture — and recent scientific research backs that up.

THE NEW RESEARCH

In this Oct. 2014 photo, Los Angeles police with the South Traffic Division investigate the scene of a crash in which a 32-year-old woman, 1-year-old girl, and 3-year-old girl were seriously injured by a driver. (Nick Ut/AP)

The name of the study lays it out: "Does news coverage of traffic crashes affect perceived blame and preferred solutions? Evidence from an experiment."

Researchers from Texas A&M and Rutgers universities recruited 999 participants and randomly assigned them into three equally-sized groups.

Each group was randomly assigned to read one of three versions of text describing a crash in which a driver fatally struck a pedestrian — one was "pedestrian-focused," one was "driver-focused" and one had "thematic framing," which reported on the crash in the context of a larger trend of pedestrian deaths.

Switching from the pedestrian-focused story to the driver-focused story "caused readers to assign 30% more blame to the driver, and 30% less blame to the pedestrian," the study found.

The language media use is one part of the narrative, but as the study showed, contextualizing that language to include broader street safety issues is a second important piece. Researchers noted the impact a news story's framing had on how readers think about improving roadways.

A 2010 study from the Federal Highway Administration found HAWK pedestrian crossing beacons can reduce pedestrian-related crashes by nearly 70%. (Courtesy LADOT)

Reading the version with "thematic framing" resulted in "significantly increased support for infrastructure improvements."

"This study provides strong evidence that efforts to change public perceptions of road safety should include a focus on improving editorial patterns in traffic crash reporting," researchers said.

The study offered some "best practices" news outlets could adopt to better contextualize their reporting on traffic crashes, including shifting focus to the driver and avoiding "counterfactuals," or statements that imply a pedestrian victim could have survived by acting differently.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN YOU READ ABOUT A TRAFFIC FATALITY

Context. Framing. Blaming.

Take this recent ABC7 report on pedestrian deaths, which was sharply criticized by safety advocates.

The story mapped out where pedestrians were killed countywide in 2018 and included an interview with a traffic investigator from LAPD's Central Bureau.

The detective told ABC7 that the surge in pedestrian deaths may be tied to rising homelessness, claiming homeless individuals "may not care to follow the rules of the road and they cross whenever they want to cross." However, no direct evidence to back up that statement was included in the story.

ABC7 also reported that 91% of the 22 pedestrian traffic deaths in the Central Bureau in 2018 were the fault of pedestrians, but there was no information in the story about how fault is determined, or how often unsafe speeds or other driver behaviors factored in to those crashes.

What is known is that pedestrian deaths in Central Bureau represent 17% of the 127 pedestrians killed by drivers in L.A. in 2018, however no comparison with the LAPD's other three bureaus was provided in the story.

Pedestrians walk through an intersection near MacArthur Park in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Additionally, the story included a quote from the detective that pedestrians "have a sense of security with the crosswalk, like it's a forcefield that protects them." The report was quickly skewered by local safety advocates, who blasted it as victim blaming.

"A lot of times, LAPD language is very unhelpful and biased in favor of the driver," Linton told LAist. "If you're driving too fast to slow down... when you see someone in a crosswalk, it's the drivers fault that someone dies in a crosswalk. It's really disappointing to see police making statements like [that]."

Yi said the detective's words are a classic example of "a driver's perspective on what it is to be a pedestrian."

"If you walk on the sidewalk in L.A.... no one ever feels safe," he said. "The idea that people trying to get to their destination the best way they can is somehow their fault, I just really have a tough time buying that."

LAPD media relations and Central Bureau officials did not respond to LAist's requests for comment. ABC7 declined to comment on the criticism of its reporting.

ANOTHER TERM EMERGING

Across the nation, activists have been using a term other than "accident" to emphasize the death toll in local streets and in cities: traffic violence.

"Getting hit by a car and being severely injured is a violent act," said Madeline Brozen, deputy director for UCLA's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies. "That really understands how it's personally affecting people and is... part of trying to change the language around this to really help highlight the severity of what's going on."

It's not a new term, though. Streetsblog — a reporting network that covers street safety and advocates for progressive transportation policies — mentioned "traffic violence" as far back as 2013.

The term hit the national stage in November when U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren used it in a tweet on World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

Vision Zero, a global campaign to eliminate traffic deaths, has also used "traffic violence" in its network-wide messaging. Mayor Eric Garcetti adopted the initiative for L.A. in 2015, with a guiding philosophy that traffic collisions are avoidable, not accidents.

But "traffic violence" hasn't caught on for the local program.

LADOT, which manages the city's Vision Zero projects, declined to comment on how it or other city agencies talk about traffic crashes, but reiterated to LAist that it is "committed to eliminate traffic fatalities on our city streets and one life lost in a traffic collision is one life too many."

THE SEMANTICS OF INTENTION

Commuter Topher Hendricks checks for traffic at the Sunset and Fountain intersection during his ten-mile bike ride to work. Hendricks has had many close calls at the intersection and says that he witness dangerous interactions between motorists and cyclists daily. (Susanica Tam for LAist)

If calling traffic crashes "traffic violence" doesn't sit well with you, it may be because of the sense of blame or intention attached to "violence." Drivers aren't out there aiming for pedestrians and cyclists, so how does intention factor in?

UCLA's Madeline Brozen argues it can be traced back to both failure to follow road safety laws and a lack of understanding about how dangerous driving a car is — especially since unsafe speed is the top contributing factor in L.A. traffic deaths.

Research shows that a pedestrian struck by a driver going 20 mph has an 80% chance of survival. If that driver accelerates to 40 mph and hits a pedestrian, the victim's chance of surviving drops to just 10%.

"The act of going above the speed limit or going fast [in unsafe] road conditions...that is an intention," Brozen said. "When someone is driving in a way that can kill someone, they are creating a risk."

According to John Yi, another "degree of intention" in traffic deaths falls on car-centric society and L.A.'s leaders, who are "intentional about what we're building and what we're not building."

City officials have stated clearly that L.A.'s mission to eliminate traffic deaths is informed by the fact that "underserved communities are disproportionately killed in traffic crashes." But Yi argues that the historic neglect of those communities can be viewed as intentional.

"To take that away, I think, is really not looking at some of the most disinvested communities and what they're going through," he said. "To put it squarely on the shoulders of drivers and say it's their fault and they're the ones who should be moderating behavior is overlooking the situation altogether."

CHANGING LANGUAGE ISN'T ENOUGH TO SAVE LIVES

(Courtesy LADOT)

Even if "traffic violence" became the go-to term used by City Hall, police, local news, and the general public, that alone won't translate to safer streets.

Both activists and LADOT officials agree that the ability to save lives depends on reducing car speeds. That means investing in street infrastructure improvements that are designed to protect people who are not driving in cars from people behind the wheel.

Meanwhile, in the four years since L.A.'s Vision Zero was announced, traffic deaths soared.

From 2016 through the final days of 2019, roughly 975 people have died in traffic crashes. More than half of those deaths — about 500 — were pedestrians killed by drivers, and about 80 cyclists were killed on city streets.

Traffic enforcement — as in police cracking down on speeding drivers — is a crucial element in improving safety. How speed limits are set and enforced is its own weird beast, which one L.A. leader blamed on a "ludicrous" state law that forces cities to raise speed limits to enforce speeding laws.

But Yi and safety advocates say the bigger missing piece is a unified political will among L.A.'s leaders to invest in safety improvements on a scale wide enough to make a lasting impact.

"Much of [L.A.'] efforts to create safe streets have been piecemeal, fixing a corridor here and a network of streets over there," Yi said. "I just don't think it's a way of [solving] this, especially for a city that's this car-centric, where we need that serious change."

Residents are taking notice of L.A.'s lack of progress to deliver safer streets.

Community members and local cyclists recently marched in honor of Frederick "Woon" Frazier, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bike in South L.A. last April. And last month, a grassroots group of cyclists and safety activists staged a die-in at L.A. City Hall, blasting Mayor Eric Garcetti and city councilmembers for the state of street safety in Los Angeles.

And, since context matters, we'll leave you with the latest preliminary 2019 traffic collision data published by the city. The city estimates more than 130 pedestrians were killed in crashes last year, a slight increase from the previous year. Pedestrian deaths have exceeded motorist deaths in Los Angeles every year since 2010.

Here's a breakdown of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries through Dec. 21, based on data from LAPD's four command bureaus:

PEDESTRIAN DEATHS

  • Central: 30
  • South: 36
  • Valley: 36
  • West: 29 (up 61% from the same time period last year)

SERIOUS PEDESTRIAN INJURIES*

  • Central: 126 (up nearly 50% from the same time period last year)
  • South: 107
  • Valley: 108
  • West: 116

* This includes any injuries that required medical attention as recorded by police

As Joe Linton sees it, those figures say nothing about the Vision Zero philosophy itself, but everything about the lack of commitment from L.A. leaders to put that philosophy into practice.

"L.A. never really tried Vision Zero, never really invested in it," he said. "The increasing death tolls on our streets is not the failure of Vision Zero but the city's failure to put any political muscle behind Vision Zero ... if you don't follow through on Vision Zero, you get lots of deaths on your streets."

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