The U.S. Media Needs to Follow Guidelines for Highway Safety Issues and Road Crash Reports

Whenever a forensic crash investigation has not been completed — something which typically takes many days — it is very unwise for anyone at a crash scene to speculate about the cause of the incident. It is not rare for things that look obvious to prove entirely inaccurate.

Even the use of the word ‘accident’ to describe a crash, a collision or a rollover, is a very bad choice. Such things do not happen by “accident,” they all have one or more causes and driver error is involved in more than 90 percent of them. (Note that we used the word ‘involved,’ not ’caused.’ This is yet another significant misunderstanding that comes from bad reporting.)

“Sadly, some of the worst offenders in the USA are law enforcement officers who want ten minutes of fame through giving speculative opinions to journalists at crash scenes.”

Similarly, many people — certainly including journalists — come to the ‘natural’ conclusion that just because they have been driving for however many months, years or decades, they know all that they need to about road safety. This assumption, however, in invariably way off course. Traffic safety is an intensely complex subject that no individual on the planet understands in its entirety; the best anyone can hope for is significant expertise in one or perhaps two of the disciplines involved.

As one personal example, I will mention that as a traffic patrol police officer, many years ago, I would sometimes be socializing with friends and the subject would get around to a serious collision that had occurred in recent days. On those occasions when I had actually been present at the crash that was being discussed — sometimes as the investigating officer — I quickly learned to stay silent and let my friends talk. And the things that they said were often fascinating because of how wildly inaccurate they were… sheer speculation that had no bearing on reality whatsoever.

Sadly, in that context, some of the worst offenders in the USA are law enforcement officers who perhaps want ten minutes of fame through giving speculative opinions to journalists at crash scenes.

Photo: Wiki Commons

Press reports and Internet articles that result from inaccuracy or speculation by anyone involved can do harm not only to people’s perception and understanding of highway safety but can also adversely affect the outcome of court cases.

In Britain, where in any event such issues have long been governed by sub judice laws as soon as there is legal involvement, the harmful effects of such inaccuracy has grown in importance to the point where a new and far reaching set of guidelines is being developed.

An article this week in The Guardian starts with: “There’s a problem with how we talk about our roads. From news reports on ‘accidents’ to who gets blamed for road danger in comment pieces, our media sources sometimes flip the sources of death and injury on their head…”

Draft ‘Road Collision Reporting Guidelines‘ have now been put forward for public consultation.

There are two levels of detail: first the overarching guidelines, and secondly the subclauses explaining in more detail how the guidelines should be applied.

The draft guidelines are produced by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy in collaboration with national roads policing, academics and experts in the field, road safety charities, and the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, and advised by IMPRESS.

It is hard to see how the importance of such guidelines could be overstated. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the better the American public understands what things are safe or unsafe on the roads, the easier it will become to improve the situation.

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