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“Language matters” – Road collision reporting guidelines launched

Guidelines urge media to use “crash” or “collision” instead of “accident” and to refer to “driver” rather than “car,” among other things

Guidelines for reporting road traffic collisions, aimed at the UK media, have been officially launched today, with supporters highlighting that by following the guidance, the press can play a role in making the streets safer for everyone including vulnerable road users.

The Road Collision Reporting Guidelines were co-ordinated by journalist and road.cc contributor Laura Laker working alongside the Active Travel Academy at the University of Westminster, with their launch coming during UN Global Road Safety Week 2021.

They encourage media, among other things, to avoid using the word “accident” – “crash” or “collision” not carrying the same association with chance – and to acknowledge the role of motorists, with many outlets for instance continuing to carry headlines such as “car crashes into tree.”

The full guidelines can be found here, and below is a summary of the 10 key points:

  1. At all times be accurate, say what you know and, importantly, what you don’t know.
  2. Avoid use of the word ‘accident’ until the facts of a collision are known.
  3. If you’re talking about a driver, say a driver, not their vehicle.
  4. Consider the impact on friends and relatives of publishing collision details.
  5. Treat publication of photos with caution, including user generated footage or imagery.
  6. Be mindful if reporting on traffic delays not to overshadow the greater harm, of loss of life or serious injury, which could trivialise road death.
  7. Journalists should consider whether language used negatively generalises a person or their behaviour as part of a ‘group’.
  8. Coverage of perceived risks on the roads should be based in fact and in context.
  9. Avoid portraying law-breaking or highway code contravention as acceptable, or perpetrators as victims.
  10. Road safety professionals can help provide context, expertise, and advice on broader issues around road safety.

The final version of the guidelines has been developed following a consultation process to which nearly 200 responses were received, including from the media, police and legal profession, road safety organisations and the general public, with 72 per cent agreeing with the guidelines’ principles and a further 21 per cent backing their aims. The full consultation report can be found here.

Professor Rachel Aldred, Director, Active Travel Academy, commented: “The Active Travel Academy is delighted to have developed these guidelines which are based on research and expert input.

“We know much good road collision reporting already exists and we hope that the guidelines will help spread this good practice.

“The research tells us that language matters, as it helps shape how we see and treat others. So for instance referring to drivers rather than only their vehicles helps remind us that behind every vehicle – be it a car, an HGV, a cycle or a motorcycle – is a person making decisions that affect the safety of others.”

The guidelines are intended to sit alongside existing ones for reporting on issues including suicide, domestic abuse and refugees, and are supported by leading road user and road safety organisations including the AA, British Cycling, Cycling UK, RoadPeace and Transport for London.

Victoria Lebrec of road crash victim charity RoadPeace said: “I was run over in 2014 and my left leg was amputated as a result of the collision. I narrowly survived. A headline at the time read: ‘A cyclist who was nearly killed and lost her leg after she was hit by a skip lorry has hugged and forgiven the driver who was fined £750 for his role in the accident.’

“It reads as though the skip lorry is to blame for the crash. And why am I forgiving someone if it was an accident? And what would the role of the driver be, given it was an accident? What’s he even being fined for?”

Sarah Mitchell, chief executive of Cycling UK added: “The biggest barrier to more people cycling is the perception that riding on our roads is dangerous.

“Adjusting the way we report road traffic collisions as outlined in these new guidelines could go a long way to addressing these concerns, while also, it is to be hoped, making our roads safer for their most vulnerable users.”

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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