Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How We Talk About How We Travel: Vehicles Don't Injure, Motorists Do

Motorist, not Car, Claims Life of S.F. Pedestrian

Errant vehicles seem to be barreling and bumping along San Francisco streets injuring and killing pedestrians and bicyclists, at least according to much of the local media. Consider these reports from the last two days alone:
  • "A woman was seriously injured when she was struck by a vehicle on San Francisco's Mission Street early Tuesday morning." KCBS News report, Feb. 24, 2010
  • "A teenager was hit by a pickup truck in the Sunset district this morning and was transported to a hospital." report, Feb. 24, 2010
  • "A pedestrian running to catch a bus was seriously injured this afternoon when he apparently tripped and the bus ran over him." ABC7News report, Feb. 23, 2010
In these cases, the car, the truck, and the bus were operated by individuals; the vehicles were not running amuck of their own accord. A motorist, a truck driver, and a bus operator struck or ran over pedestrians and seriously injured them.

One or other of the parties may bear all or some of the responsibility when a collision occurs, but the individual operating the vehicle nevertheless was the one who struck and injured the non-motorist. Granted, reporters sometimes refer to the driver in follow-up sentences or paragraphs but the first impression and the emphasis is on the vehicle.

(It's the same for bicyclists who sometimes -- but not as often as many people think -- hit and injure pedestrians on the street or sidewalk. Whatever the right-of-way issue in these cases, the person on the bike hit the person on the street or on the sidewalk).

There's no need to argue about the "politically correct" way to describe collisions that disrupt lives, cause injury and sometimes kill other road-users. The issue is not correctness. The concern is the tendency to not hold motorists responsible for what they do with their vehicles. The goal proposed here is not to "police" news reports or deprive editors of their brief headlines. The intent is to describe accurately what occurs -- "motorist hits pedestrian."

Last September the collision that killed a young woman on a North Panhandle street was reported by the with this headline: "Car Claims Life of San Francisco Pedestrian." No, a 19-year-old man struck and killed the young woman on the street.

5:30 pm addition: Sometimes pedestrians have "accidents" that apparently don't even involve vehicles, as sfist noted about the South of Market collision cited first in the list above. That blog's headline reads: "SOMA Pedestrian Accident Blocks Mission Street." In the brief article that follows there's not even a mention of a vehicle or a driver involved.


  1. Huh? Not really...

    From a purely language perspective, planes fly and land, not pilots. Pilots can cause planes to fly and land, but they don't actually do the flying and landing. Drivers cause vehicles to run over pavement. But drivers are not the ones running over pavement--or they'd be out on the street with their keds on.

    The one in which the person tripped and fell under the back wheels of the bus--that was NOT the driver running over the person. The bus ran over the person. Stating otherwise implies blame. The driver had no time to react and didn't even know that the person was there because the person acted inappropriately. Saying that the driver did anything related to that doesn't make sense.

    Perhaps an easier example to understand would be Caltrain. These trains get going at full speed, and an unfortunate person purposefully steps in front of them. Would you really like the newspaper headline to state that the engineer hit the suicidal person? That's just wrong, and it's implying blame where none exists.

    It's a semantic argument you're making. Although I see the point you are trying to make, I think you preference is gramatically incorrect. Morever, it attempts to lay blame, even in cases when none exist or blame is murky.

  2. Let's keep the equation where it started on the ground with vehicle operators on the streets and with pedestrians and bicyclists. And no need to consider the extremes of either suicidal individuals diving in front of trains or motorists with homicidal intent.

    Cars,trucks, and buses start out parked and stationary. Someone gets them moving and keeps them moving. Being responsible for your own driving as a motorist does not mean you are to blame for everything that occurs in your path. But taking a "hands-off" approach -- "the car did it" -- seems to me to depersonalize what happened in a collision and tilts any fact-finding away from one party at the very start.

    The issue I addressed -- too briefly perhaps --is accountability and how we talk about that accountability and how the words we choose can affect our perception of what happened.