Words Matter, Even In Traffic
The vital role of language and framing in advancing Vision Zero
By Tara Goddard and Kelcie Ralph
People engaged in Vision Zero know that how we discuss traffic safety is one important way of connecting individual behaviors and outcomes to the larger system, an idea which is central to Vision Zero, otherwise known as the Safe Systems approach. Proponents of changing the narrative around traffic safety in the U.S. led “crash, not accident” campaigns at least as early as 2014 — eschewing the implication that traffic crashes are random and unpreventable. They have urged politicians, reporters, and advocates to make this simple word choice to convey the preventable nature of traffic crashes. In one major success of these efforts, in 2016, the Associated Press adopted a policy that reporters should use “crash” or “collision” in favor of “accident” when negligence resulted in a traffic collision.
In two recent studies, our research team — looked for empirical evidence whether or not the language we use to discuss traffic safety matters. If using “crash” instead of “accident” helps people understand that traffic crashes are preventable, it follows that broader language and framing would affect perception about traffic safety. Our research team developed two studies to explore these issues of language and framing in traffic crash reporting. More broadly, we hypothesized that certain editorial patterns may help explain why traffic crashes are not widely viewed as a public health issue.
We first examined 200 local news stories from across the United States, each a report of a traffic crash involving a bicyclist or pedestrian. While our internally-developed coding system was fine-grained and included 16 different sentence types, we distilled our findings into two common problems. Troublingly, the specific language and framing that are most problematic from a Vision Zero standpoint are also the most widespread in media crash reporting nationwide.
The first problem was pervasive victim-blaming through language that specifically focuses on the victim, omits an actor, and gives agency to vehicles rather than people. These grammatical choices comprised over 80 percent of the articles we reviewed. For example, “A bicyclist was hit” or “A pedestrian was hit by a car.” The former omits an agent altogether, suggesting that the crash just happened. In our study, articles lacked an agent one-third of the time. Without an agent, it is unclear who readers should hold accountable, and may suggest that no one is at fault, as is implied by “accident.” The latter sentence example uses a vehicle, rather than a human driver, as the actor. Articles referred to the vehicle four times more often than a person operating that vehicle. The driver, however, is the person with the ability to cause the harm in a collision, much as the person wielding a hammer would be, but we do not say “A hammer hit a person.” Instead, using “a driver hit a pedestrian” or “a driver hit a pedestrian with their car” addresses the issues of both victim-focus and lack of an agent.
The second widespread problem is the focus on traffic crashes as isolated events, rather than products of system-level planning and engineering decisions. Less than twenty percent of the articles pooled for our study included “thematic framing” like the infrastructure at the crash site, local trends, or other contextual details. Because Vision Zero is fundamentally focused on making these connections between traffic crashes, and it is vital that advocates and professionals use language that gives context, draws attention to system aspects, and highlights larger trends.
To examine whether these differences in word choice and framing had measurable effects on readers, we designed an experiment in which people were randomly assigned to read one of three articles about a traffic crash that involved a pedestrian. The first article represented the common victim-focused language and framing; the article used the word “accident,” passive voice, and omitted any details about the driver or the environment. The second version focused on the driver and used the word “crash.” The third article added thematic elements regarding local speeds, the lack of a marked crossing, and citywide crash trends. Study participants did not know that there were other versions of the article being read by the other participants.
What we found is that even though a focus on the driver as agent and the presence of thematic framing are uncommon in current coverage of traffic crashes, these factors affect how people reading those articles interpret the events. People who read the driver-focused article were 30 percent less likely to blame the pedestrian and 30 percent more likely to blame the driver. Readers of the article that included both the driver-focus and thematic elements were four times as likely to attribute the crash to “other factors” than other groups. Their description of those factors suggested they were more likely to view the crash as a result of design or policy choice instead of just individual behavior. Encouragingly for Vision Zero efforts, thematic framing shifted support away from individual-level programs (like pedestrian-education campaigns) towards systems-level solutions like pedestrian infrastructure and lower speed limits. The magnitude of these shifts provides strong evidence that even relatively subtle differences in word choice, sentence construction, and framing can significantly help or hinder efforts to improve narratives around traffic crashes.
Although we focused on local news articles to examine language and framing, these patterns are likely to hold true from adopted transportation plans to dinner table conversations. Transportation professionals of all types, advocates, and policy-makers who champion Vision Zero can adopt the same relatively simple changes that our work recommended to journalists. By focusing on the actors with the ability to cause the most harm, avoiding sentence construction that implicitly blames victims, and including contextual elements, we can help change the narrative around traffic safety and reinforce Vision Zero efforts.
Tara Goddard is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University. Dr. Goddard earned her PhD in Urban Studies from the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. She holds a Masters in Civil Engineering from the University of California, Davis, and served 2007–2011 as the Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator for the City of Davis, CA. Tara’s research interests include all things transportation safety-related, but in particular, the interactions of travel behavior and infrastructure on differential experiences and safety outcomes for people who walk and roll.
Kelcie Ralph is an Associate Professor of Transportation Planning at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Dr. Ralph’s research centers on three themes: 1) equitable access to opportunities, 2) understanding urban planners, and 3) encouraging a shift away from automobiles. Dr. Ralph earned her PhD. at the University of California, Los Angeles and her doctoral thesis — which was awarded the Barclay Gibbs Jones Award for Best Dissertation in Planning — examined the causes and the consequences of the decline in driving among young people.