Why language matters and accidents aren’t accidents
by Gary Howe, Advocacy Director
Implicit bias in the language we use to discuss walking and biking was a key topic through the 2019 Grand Traverse Advocate Academy. For example, we talked a lot about windshield bias and how it informs policies, designs, and use of public spaces. It’s a large part why we need pro-walk, pro-bike advocacy. There’s also a need for citizen advocates to be aware of how their own language shapes discussions. Too often, we use language that categorizes people based on their mobility choice; our fellow citizens become pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. This puts our neighbors, and their behavior, at a distance from ourselves.
The reality is that how we choose to move about the community doesn’t define us. Most people I know use many different modes of travel depending on their needs, comfort level, and what’s available. I’ve challenged myself to embrace the multi-modal within me and within every one of us. I strive to have empathy for everyone I meet on the road of life, regardless of how they are moving about. I believe it will lead me to be a better advocate: if I advocate for improvements that benefit everyone, instead of just a few, my efforts will be more effective. (See the Language Matters Cheat Sheet below.)
Another aspect of language bias is found in the media and police reports covering traffic crashes. We don’t have to look very hard to find language bias in media as often the headlines are enough to give many of us pause: ”Pedestrian Hit by Car.” It’s as if autonomous vehicles are already here! Or this one from the 2006 Traverse City Record-Eagle: “Car strikes, kills pedestrian.” This passive, clinical language obscures agency. In addition to dropping pedestrian, cyclist, and motorist, try replacing “car” with any other inanimate object and see how it sounds. “Man hit by hammer.” “Piano strikes, kills woman.” “Banana slams into drugstore.”
In a recent Outside Magazine piece, Joe Lindsey examines the issue of language’s legal impact, highlighting two studies that connect language bias in media coverage and police reports. Quick-breaking news coverage laden with implicit language bias tends to anchor blame on inanimate objects, regardless of the facts. There are real consequences for everyone involved, legally and personally.
Forging a Better Path
Team Orange can commit to more accurate and inclusive language. We can check ourselves when we fall into categorizing others based on mode choices. And we can catch ourselves when we use the word “accident” to describe predictable and preventable traffic crashes. Consider signing your name to the “Crash Not Accident” website: pledge to stop saying ”accident.’
Saying accident instead of crash is most unhelpful framing. First and foremost, it suggests that nothing could have been done. And it suggests that our car-centric land use, street designs, and policies are unchangeable. This is unacceptable. As a society, we must demand answers and accountability for the 6 million car accidents crashes and 40,000 deaths a year on US streets and roads alone.
These so-called accidents are preventable. As Lindsay notes:
‘Accident’ conveys inevitability. You can trace virtually every crash to something upstream, whether human error, poor street design, or something else. Almost every crash is preventable.
I will not call traffic crashes “accidents.” I will educate others about why “crash” is a better word.
What’s your experience?
*Above graphics from, Editorial Patterns in Bicyclist and Pedestrian Crash Reporting
- How We Talk About Drivers Hitting Cyclists (Outside Magazine)
- When covering car crashes, be careful not to blame the victim
- If You Want to Get Away with Murder, Use Your Car
- Editorial Patterns in Bicyclist and Pedestrian Crash Reporting
- We don’t say “plane accident.” We shouldn’t say “car accident” either.
Continued Learning for Citizen Advocates
We recently shared the story of the 2019 Advocate Academy with the primary funder of this year’s program, the League of Michigan Bicyclists. This is an an adapted version of the original report published by LMB. You can meet this year’s graduates on May 9 at their graduation celebration. There will be a chance to introduce yourself, talk community, enjoy a beverage, and then tour by bike the three project locations identified during the academy.
The Grand Traverse Advocate Academy is a call to community action. It’s aimed at fellow citizens who see missing sidewalks and say, “we can do better than this and I’m going to do something about it.”
We’re all familiar with similar stories because they are everywhere. A mom sees a need for a better crosswalk. A group of downtown office workers wants a bike lane. A family wants safe access to a park. Hopes and dreams are part of the community and it takes work to realize them. The Advocate Academy helps citizen dreamers become citizen advocates.
This year’s 5-week session began like last year with the crafting of a personal narrative. We do this because the values driving our personal narratives are powerful tools for persuasion. When we articulate them as individuals and then as a coalition, our advocacy becomes shared. Those shared stories become the foundation to goals we work to put in place.
In the first week, we borrowed from the author Daniel Pink and used the Pixar Pitch from his book, To Sell is Human. The framing activates our brain’s natural inclination to story–it draws us in. Read the following example from our class and see how you nod in agreement.
‘Once upon a time, there was a mom and her young son. Every day, the mom drove across town with her son to drop him off at preschool and then go to work. Summer traffic was terrible and the 3-mile trip could sometimes take up to 45 minutes! Because of that, the mom became fed up and decided to ride her bike with a bike trailer instead. Because of that, the two had to cross several unsafe intersections and/or risk their safety using bike lanes on busy streets. Until finally, a group of spirited and passionate citizens (GTAA) got together and made changes to improve bike and pedestrian safety in the city.’
The academy is a lot to process. But, as an introduction to local advocacy, we hope three broad lessons come across.
- Advocate for Others. That advocating for something larger than yourself is empowering. Speaking up for a better community creates opportunities that can help your cause.
- Team Building. That team building is a powerful tool. Joining forces shows wide support and diversifies your coalition’s skillset.
- There’s Help. That there are tools and organizations within your reach to help you achieve your goal. Norte’s Neighborhood Pro-walk/Pro-Bike Advocacy program is one such resource.
For 2020, the key questions to examine include the length of each session and the course itself. There is a wide agreement for more time to process information and to work with each other on a real project. Norte will look to refine the course material and presentation. Evaluations suggest that more time learning tactics, strategy, and planning concepts will help build confidence. And finally, we will include more opportunities to learn from one another and practice advocating. This will help build a practical understanding of the concepts and show how a few Citizen Advocates can indeed effect change.
In addition, there will be a continued opportunity for direct, on the ground learning through walking audits, pop-up demonstrations, and tactile urbanism to demonstrate the need for safer, more inviting design of our public spaces.
The 2019 Grand Traverse Advocate Academy was co-sponsored by Groundwork Center. This year’s academy also received a micro-grant from the League of Michigan Bicyclists. Norte says thank you to both of these awesome partners.”